NASA personnel bill advances with union support

The House Science-Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee approved a measure Thursday that would give NASA greater flexibility in attracting and retaining employees.

The panel approved the measure (H.R. 1085) in a voice vote, despite the opposition of Democrats. The ranking Democrat, Bart Gordon of Tennessee, argued that the subcommittee should not move forward with the bill until the Columbia Accident Investigation Board had completed its report.

The investigation board expects "half of the investigation to deal with the needs of the NASA administration," so it is counterproductive to pass a bill dealing with NASA's workforce without knowing the board's recommendations, Gordon said.

"Let's take the time to do it right," Gordon urged the panel.

But House Science Chairman Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., argued that NASA urgently needed to attract and retain workers. A quarter of the NASA workforce will be eligible for retirement in five years, he said. He also said the panel did not need the Columbia report to act, since the bill's provisions would not be radical departures from current laws.

Boehlert denied Democratic charges of partisanship. Republicans were continuing to keep the Democratic staff advised of Republican plans.

The panel approved by voice vote a manager's amendment by Boehlert reflecting compromises reached between Boehlert, the House Government Reform Committee, NASA and NASA's largest union, the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE).

Under the bill, NASA would be given flexibilities including:

  • Recruitment, redesignation, retention and relocation bonuses worth up to 50 percent of an employee's salary. Current law limits such bonuses to 25 percent of salary.
  • A $10 million annual scholarship program under which NASA would pay for a student's tuition in return for a commitment to work for NASA after graduation.
  • Authority to hire employees at any step of a grade for employees with superior qualifications and additional duties.
  • Buyouts of up to 50 percent of an employee's salary. The current limit is $25,000.
  • The ability to provide new NASA employees with no prior federal service to accrue leave at the same rate as federal employees with similar levels of experience.

The bill does not include a proposed exchange program in which NASA employees and contractors could swap jobs for short periods of time. "IFPTE believes that such a program, in any form, would seriously compromise the agency's independence from the very contractors it must oversee," union president Greg Junemann said in a letter to Boehlert.

Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, has introduced a similar bill in the Senate (S. 610)

Brian Friel contributed to this report.

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