Defense opposes cuts in funding for civilian Air Force personnel

Pentagon officials have lodged objections to several personnel-related provisions in preliminary versions of the fiscal 2010 Defense authorization bill, including proposals to reduce funding for Air Force civilian personnel and dismantle the National Security Personnel System unless a case could be made to keep it.

In a Sept. 4 letter to the House Armed Services Committee, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Legislative Affairs Elizabeth King asked House-Senate negotiators to remove or alter several portions of the House and Senate versions of the bill during conference committee.

King said the House's proposed $400 million cut in funding for Air Force civilian personnel and the Senate's $538.1 million decrease were based on outdated projections from the Government Accountability Office, which found the Air Force was overestimating its workforce needs.

"The [Air Force] has an aggressive hiring plan in place to increase on-board strength by another 6,000-plus hires in support of new programmatic requirements such as contract in-sourcing, reforming the acquisition workforce, ensuring nuclear security and joint basing," King wrote. "Given new mission requirements and [Air Force] strength levels exceeding GAO projections, congressional reductions would force [the Air Force] to remain at current fiscal 2009 strength levels and prohibit us from meeting the [secretary of Defense's] goals of contract in-sourcing and acquisition workforce reform."

Defense outlined objections to provisions in both bills that could result in the repeal of NSPS, the department's controversial pay-for-performance plan. The letter stated that dismantling the system could hurt efforts to replace contractors with federal employees. "The termination of NSPS would be disruptive and potentially have a negative impact on the department's mission and its in-sourcing efforts, which require streamlined and timely hiring flexibilities as provided by NSPS," King wrote.

The letter also called the language on NSPS premature, given that the pay system was under review when the House and Senate agreed to the provisions. The board assigned to assess NSPS in late August issued a final report calling for a major overhaul of the pay system, but stopping short of recommending that the department scrap it entirely.

If one of the versions of the NSPS language must pass, the Pentagon would prefer the Senate's, which would give the Defense secretary more flexibility to retain the system, according to the letter. The House bill would require additional legislative action to preserve the system, whereas the Senate version would allow the secretary to keep it by certifying that its elimination would be detrimental. The Senate version also would allow the Pentagon to replace NSPS with an arrangement that still includes some incentive pay.

"It recognizes the ongoing independent review of NSPS and gives the secretary the opportunity to be informed in making decisions on the future of the program by findings and recommendations from the Defense Business Board, as well as results of internal program evaluations, workforce surveys and external reviews," the letter stated. "It also provides the secretary the option of terminating NSPS in a more deliberate, reasonable manner and exploring other new personnel authorities."

In addition, King's letter criticized a proposal in the Senate version of the bill that would create a Civilian Leadership Program to select and groom employees for top positions in the department. The letter said such a program would duplicate existing initiatives, such as the Defense Senior Leader Development Program and the Executive Leader Development Program.

"Creating a new leadership development program under the demonstration project authority is unnecessary," the letter stated. "Due to the prestige of its existing programs and the widespread recognition in completing them, program graduates have a distinct edge in competing for more responsible positions, without sacrificing merit system principles."

Defense stated that the rapid advancement of program graduates, as mandated by the bill, would cause administrative and human resources problems.

House Armed Services Committee spokeswoman Lara Battles said the conference committee did not yet have an official meeting scheduled, and that committee members would not comment on the negotiations.

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