Lawmaker seeks delay on Defense personnel reform vote

The ranking member of the House Government Reform Committee is urging committee leaders to delay voting on the Defense Department's recently unveiled proposal for a new civilian personnel system.

On Friday, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., sent a letter to Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., asking that he put off plans for an April 30 committee vote on the Pentagon's wide-ranging proposal until lawmakers had a chance to review the proposal in detail and consult with experts and Defense employees. The "Defense Transformation for the 21st Century Act," arrived in Congress April 10.

"The changes this legislation would make to the civil service system are profound," Waxman wrote. "Whatever we do at DoD will have major implications for the entire federal workforce and will complicate our efforts to enact reforms of other federal agencies."

Details of the proposed National Security Personnel System are culled from several Defense laboratory personnel demonstration projects, and include switching to a pay-banding system, implementing a separate pay structure for managers, and modifying job classifications, hiring authorities, pay administration and reduction-in-force procedures. The proposal calls for doing away with automatic annual pay increases and instead pooling money for salary boosts in a pay-for-performance fund. Locality pay would remain untouched, according to Ginger Groeber, Defense's deputy undersecretary for civilian personnel policy.

"To change a civil service system that took a century to create, Congress should act in a careful and deliberative manner," wrote Waxman. "I urge you to slow down this runaway legislative train."

David Marin, committee spokesman, said the proposal was months in the making and the Wednesday House Government Reform Committee vote would not be delayed.

"We've said all along that civil service reform was going to be at the top of our agenda, " Marin said. "We've talked to all the stakeholders multiple times, so it's not clear what another week or two gets us. This train is leaving the station; Davis feels like we either drive it or get run over [by] it. We're choosing to drive it."

Critics of the current Defense civilian personnel system say it is antiquated and unable to meet the department's workforce or national security challenges of the future.

"This is a system that was designed for…Grover Cleveland's administration," David Chu, Defense undersecretary for personnel and readiness, said at a forum on April 22. "We face a competitive marketplace, but we are not competitive."

Other details of the proposal include allowing use of a "best value," method rather than cost, in job competitions, and allowing military installations to use contractors as firefighters and security guards. The American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employee union, has consistently fought this measure and plans to oppose the proposal.

"AFGE is at a loss to identify a serious or true rationale for this legislation," said President Bobby Harnage. "DoD has been granted tremendous flexibility and it has exercised its authorities to the maximum extent. The burden is on DoD to explain the need for this authority outside congressional review."

The proposal's plans for union representation are identical to those included in the legislation that created the Homeland Security Department, which is still crafting its personnel system. Under that law, unions have less bargaining power, but Homeland Security Department leaders must work with union leaders before adopting any new policies. "The legislation could have remained silent on this matter," Chu said. "But we have not abandoned bargaining."

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which represents Defense Department whistleblowers, also believes the proposal gives Pentagon officials too much latitude.

"This is a classic 'bait and switch' where the preamble says it will protect whistleblowers and respect ethics rules while the fine print waives all the safeguards," said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. "Due process and fundamental fairness are not threats to national security."

Waxman also questioned the Defense Department's inclusion in the proposed legislation of broad personnel authorities given to the Homeland Security Department.

"Before we grant these requests, we need to evaluate how well the Homeland Security Department implements its flexibilities, whether they are working, and what problems have arisen," Waxman wrote.

The House Government Reform Subcommittee on Civil Service and Agency Organization has scheduled a hearing on April 29 to review the proposal. A subcommittee spokesman declined to comment on Waxman's letter.

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