House GOP blocks effort to scale back Defense personnel overhaul

House Republicans this week blocked Democrats' efforts to rein in a proposal to let the Defense Department overhaul its civilian personnel system.

On Wednesday, the House Rules Committee rejected an amendment to the fiscal 2004 Defense authorization bill (H.R. 1588) drafted by Reps. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and Danny Davis, D-Ill., entitled the "Employee Bill of Rights." The amendment aimed to modify language in the bill that would allow Pentagon officials to make sweeping changes to the Defense civilian personnel system.

The Democrats' amendment would have maintained current rules on veterans preference protections, collective bargaining requirements, and overtime pay rules. It also would have allowed employees who allege discrimination to take their cases to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and employees removed or suspended for more than two weeks to appeal the actions.

Under the version of the authorization bill that moved to the House floor, Defense civilian employees would be shifted to a pay-banding system. A separate pay structure would be created for managers. Pentagon officials would be given authority to more easily hire and fire employees, modify job classifications and change reduction-in-force procedures. The changes proposed by the bill would affect more than 700,000 employees.

A spokesman for House Government Reform Committee Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., said that Davis "likely would have opposed" the amendment had it made it to the House floor. Davis, "believes that his base bill provides the Defense Department with the agility and flexibility it needs, while maintaining worker protections," said the spokesman.

Pentagon officials say they desperately need the broad authority over civilian personnel rules that the authorization bill provides.

"We're dealing with terrorists that can move information with the speed of an e-mail; they can move money with the speed of a wire transfer; they can move people with the speed of a jet airliner," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Wednesday, according to a Defense Department report. "And the Department of Defense, unfortunately, is still bogged down in industrial-age procedures and requirements, and rules and bureaucracy."

But while many House Democrats agree that Defense officials should have personnel flexibilities to better manage the workforce, they say the proposal put forth by Rumsfeld has been rammed through the House with little opportunity for review and goes too far in stripping away civil service protections.

"No one is against giving the military the flexibility it needs to do its job," House Government Reform Committee Ranking Member Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said Tuesday. "But what they are attempting to do is go much farther than that and treat these employees as if they have no rights."

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., echoed Waxman's concern.

"We're not talking about how to fix things," Hoyer said. "It takes us too long to hire people. Can we fix that? I think we can. Can we do that without politicizing the process? Yes, I think we can. Did we talk about it? No."

On Thursday Hoyer, along with Reps. Jim Moran, D-Va., Albert Wynn, D-Md., Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C. and Van Hollen sent a letter to Senate leaders asking that they maintain civil service protections for civilian Defense employees in their version of the bill. The Senate began debate on its version of the authorization bill Monday, which did not include the personnel provisions.

"As the Senate continues consideration of its version of this legislation, we strongly urge you to take into account the valuable work of federal employees, and fight to maintain safeguards that prevent their unjust treatment, preserve their right to organize and bargain collectively, and preclude a return to the patronage system," the House legislators wrote in their appeal.

Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, worked with Senate Democrats to craft an amendment covering civil service provisions, but was unable to introduce the legislation because the Senate parliamentarian declared it not relevant to the authorization bill, according to Bonnie Heald, majority spokeswoman for the committee.

House Democrats hold out hope that once the two authorization bills go to conference there will be an opportunity to make some modifications to the civil service section.

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