Senate panel moves to scale back Pentagon personnel system

A Senate panel on Thursday approved language that would significantly limit the implementation of a controversial personnel system at the Defense Department and authorize a 3.5 percent 2008 pay raise for members of the military.

In a markup of the fiscal 2008 Defense authorization bill that began Wednesday afternoon, the Senate Armed Services Committee voted to repeal the existing authority of the Defense Department to move forward on the labor relations portions of its National Security Personnel System.

The House approved similar language last week. The Senate provision would permit Defense to continue developing a pay-for-performance system, as long as such a system is consistent with existing federal labor relations law.

In the 2004 Defense authorization act, Congress granted the department authority to create a new human resources system, based on the notion that the current system was too rigid and outdated to allow an effective response to modern threats of terrorism.

Federal labor unions have been lobbying the Senate to pass the NSPS repeal language, especially after an appeals court ruled last Friday that the 2004 law grants the agency the authority to curtail the collective bargaining rights of employees until November 2009. That ruling reversed a district court decision that struck down the labor relations portions of the system.

At a briefing Monday, several unions outlined their plans to submit the case for full court review, and they vowed to go to the Supreme Court if necessary. Still, union leaders argued that completely overhauling the system would require a legislative change and expressed hope the full Senate will pass the NSPS repeal provision, despite a veto threat from the White House.

"It has always been our position that it would take a legislative fix to change a bad law," said John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, earlier this week.

The National Federation of Federal Employees on Friday praised the committee's action.

"We don't think that Congress ever truly intended to eliminate collective bargaining at DoD," said NFFE President Rick Brown. "This provision makes it clear that the Armed Services Committee wants collective bargaining rights for DoD workers left intact."

Meanwhile, the committee also approved a 3.5 percent pay raise for military members. That figure, which is half a percent higher than the raise proposed by the Bush administration, likely will give federal labor unions an edge in pushing for an equivalent raise for civilian federal employees.

This year's civilian federal raise is likely to be included in the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act, expected to be marked up in June.

National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen Kelley praised the approval of the raise Thursday, noting that the action is significant for civilian workers who have received pay parity with the military in recent years.

"NTEU plans to work closely with members of the House and Senate to ensure a minimum 3.5 percent raise in 2008 for the federal civilian workforce," Kelley said, "and will continue our work in securing bipartisan congressional support for this increase for civilian and military employees."

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