Lawmakers seek to protect 2,000 Army Corps jobs from contractors

Replaying a battle fought last year, unions and some legislators are supporting a bill that would prevent the Army Corps of Engineers from outsourcing 2,000 jobs involving work on nearly 200 dams across the country.

The 2006 Federal Locks and Lock and Dam Facilities Act, introduced last week by Reps. Lane Evans, D-Ill., and Ray LaHood, R-Ill., would define as "inherently governmental" the operation and maintenance of locks and dams. That designation would prevent the Army Corps from conducting a public-private job competition under the rules of the Office of Management and Budget's Circular A-76.

In a letter soliciting support, Evans and LaHood described the nation's inland and intra-coastal waterways -- and the locks and dams that control movement along them -- as critical components of the transportation infrastructure. "These locks and dams are operated and maintained by skilled federal employees who, each day, exercise their discretion on behalf of the U.S. government," the co-sponsors wrote.

The lock and dam competition, if allowed to go forward, would be the second-largest public-private competition completed under the present A-76 rules, after a 2,300-position contest at the Federal Aviation Administration last year that was won by a contractor.

For the purposes of public-private competition, the Army Corps has designated lockmasters -- the supervisors at some lock and dam facilities -- as performing work that is inherently governmental, while the jobs of the operators and mechanics under them are classified as commercial and thus eligible for privatization.

But a coalition of 14 Defense unions is arguing that all employees working on the waterways perform inherently governmental work. Not all lock and dam facilities have lockmasters, the coalition says, and most of those that do are in operation around the clock, with the lockmaster present during limited hours. Since operators and mechanics also make locking decisions and direct lock traffic, they too perform inherently governmental work, the unions have said.

"If operators and mechanics weren't performing the same functions as lockmasters, exercising the same discretion and enforcing the same laws, then the nation's locks literally could not function," the coalition argued in a letter to legislators.

Led by the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers and the American Federation of Government Employees, the coalition on Friday urged legislators to support the Evans-LaHood legislation to permanently remove the lock and dam operations and maintenance positions from competition.

They also encouraged the Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee to deny the Corps funding necessary to move forward in the job competition process.

Last year legislators stripped the Corps of $2 million in funding for its competitive sourcing efforts, leaving behind sufficient funds to continue work on ongoing competitions but not to announce a new lock and dam competition as originally planned, said Ray Navidi, competitive sourcing program manager for the Corps.

He could not comment on pending legislation, nor on preliminary planning the Corps has done that lays the groundwork for a study on competing the work.

"Certainly, if funding is available, then by all means we're going to revisit that," Navidi said of the planning work already complete. Questioned as to what alternatives the Corps might pursue if Congress blocked the study, Navidi said there is close coordination with authorities within the Army and the larger Defense Department, as well as OMB, and that he would not rule out other kinds of efficiency studies.

In one example of such a study, the Corps has been selected for a Defense Department pilot program to develop its logistics management function into a "high performing organization," said George Halford, an Army Corps spokesman. That essentially entails running just the public side of a public-private competition, in which employees develop a business case to make the work in question more efficient.

Typically, when an A-76 competition is won by the in-house team, the bid presented as the employees' "most efficient organization" includes some staffing reductions. With about 80 percent of competitions being decided in favor of in-house teams over the last three years, OMB has touted the increased efficiency of reorganized in-house performance as a significant benefit of the competitive sourcing process.

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