Defense personnel overhaul backed by full House panel

Although the debate was prickly and stretched for nearly 24 hours over two days, the House Armed Services Committee late Wednesday approved a $400.5 billion Defense authorization bill that would give the Pentagon broad new powers to manage its civilian workforce.

The vote to report the bill was 58-2, with Reps. Lane Evans, D-Ill., and John Larson, D-Conn., opposed. But that lopsided outcome didn't reflect the partisan divisions that split the committee on issue after issue. Republicans said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld deserved to get what he wanted because of the military's strong showing against Iraq, while Democrats said the panel was inappropriately giving Rumsfeld and President Bush unprecedented power.

"Giving a blank check to the department is an abdication of our constitutional duties," said ranking member Ike Skelton, D-Mo. Countered Armed Services Chairman Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., "In my mind, it makes no sense to limit the president."

House Government Reform Committee members approved the measure last week. "Two committees have spoken now, and they've said it's time for more flexibility, more agility, more accountability," said David Marin, spokesman for the House Government Reform Committee. "Once the authorization bill is passed by the full House next week, we'll be well-positioned for conference with the Senate," he said. The version of the authorization bill passed by the Senate Armed Services Committee did not include the personnel provisions.

The Pentagon's bid to win new flexibility in dealing with the department's 700,000-plus civilian employees was the most contentious part of the debate, and it attracted nearly one-fourth of the 46 amendments that were voted on.

Republicans said the Pentagon needs a freer hand in hiring, firing and relocating workers as it restructures the military into a smaller, more mobile force. Democrats argued that the administration was trying to remove civil service protections in favor of a system that would allow friends to be rewarded and foes to be driven out. The bill calls for ditching the General Schedule pay system and, instead, implementing a pay-banding system and creating a separate pay structure for managers. Pentagon officials would also be able to modify job classifications, hiring authorities, pay administration and reduction-in-force procedures.

On votes largely along party lines, Republicans blocked Democratic attempts to remove the personnel provisions from the bill, add provisions to protect against patronage and restore collective bargaining language from existing legislation.

A legislative staffer for Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., who offered an amendment that would have expunged the personnel provisions from the bill, said the legislator was not opposed to giving Defense officials some hiring flexibilities or the authority to create a pay-for-performance structure. "Those are good principles that he is all for, having business world experience," the staffer said. "The big caveat is that they weren't asking for us to approve a specific plan, they were asking for a blank check to create a plan and then ask us to approve it later."

On voice votes, the committee rejected language that would have strengthened human resources authority, limited the rules to supervisors and managers, created a demonstration project that applied to 200,000 of the workers, limited the Pentagon's use of outside experts, and would have given civilian military workers the same size pay increases as service members.

Democrats did succeed in blocking the administration's plan to extend the military retirement age to 68, from 62, and allow unlimited terms for service chiefs and general officers. And they succeeded, with help of some Republicans, in defeating an attempt to cut off debate on the personnel provisions.

Rep. Jo Ann Davis, chairwoman of the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Civil Service and Agency Organization, and Chairman Hunter agreed to hammer out problems with language addressing reduction-in-force authorities granted to the Defense secretary during conference negotiations over the bill.

"I have concerns that this language is inadvertently overreaching," Davis said.

Tanya N. Ballard contributed to this report.

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