Senators air competitive sourcing worries at OMB confirmation hearing

Senators expressed concern Wednesday with the Bush administration's drive to let contractors compete for federal jobs at the confirmation hearing of Joshua Bolten to be director of the Office of Management and Budget.

Sens. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., and Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, both criticized the administration's competitive sourcing initiative, which they said could force agencies to put "inherently governmental" work-which by law must be performed by federal employees-up for competition with private firms. Lautenberg noted that the Senate had approved his legislation to exempt air traffic control jobs at the Federal Aviation Administration from competitive sourcing, including an ongoing job competition involving 2,700 flight service specialists.

"I want to modestly remind the nominee that I had a very good vote last week on the potential privatization of the air traffic control system," he told Bolten at the confirmation hearing, held by the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. "We're not happy about the suggestion that there could be an attempt to privatize the FAA."

Bolten said the administration had no plans to hold job competitions on inherently governmental jobs. "I can tell you that it will be my commitment to ensure the president's competitive sourcing initiative is implemented to ensure the only jobs we attempt to competitively source would be inherently commercial in nature," he said.

Lautenberg's measure is part of S. 824, the FAA's reauthorization bill. The White House has threatened to veto the FAA bill over the provision.

Administration officials repeatedly have said they will not outsource air traffic controllers. Although the FAA classified controllers as "commercial in nature" on its 2002 inventory of commercial jobs, the agency exempted controllers from possible competition. Federal procurement chief Angela Styles on Tuesday defended the FAA's decision, saying air traffic controllers are clearly commercial.

"You can't say this isn't a commercial activity," she said at a Washington forum sponsored by the IBM Endowment for the Business of Government. "We're not saying we're going to compete these, we're not saying it's not in the national interest to keep these as a core capacity in the government, but we are saying we're going to be honest about how we designate things."

At Wednesday's hearing, Bolten said OMB wants agencies to stage fair job competitions, even if it takes them longer than originally planned. Styles has said that only a few agencies will meet a Sept. 30 deadline for competing 15 percent of their commercial jobs, and that she would be satisfied if most agencies met this goal by July 1, 2004.

In written answers to questions from Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., Bolten pledged to provide a report to the House and Senate Appropriations committees detailing how OMB developed its competitive sourcing targets. The report was required by the conference report for the fiscal 2003 omnibus appropriations bill, but the budget office has not yet delivered it to Congress, according to Bolten.

Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, said competitive sourcing is "causing unease" inside the federal workforce and announced he would explore the issue at a July 24 hearing of the Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce, and the District of Columbia.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, urged Bolten to eliminate "gimmicks" from the president's budget proposal. He said the Senate would not fund the administration's "Bioshield" program, which seeks to develop treatments to counter bioterror agents, if it is forced to cut spending on other programs, a requirement under the current Senate budget resolution.

"I do believe that we have to put you on notice that we're not going to approve Bioshield under those circumstances," he said. Bolten said the administration did not intend to cut other programs to fund Project Bioshield and said he was confident a compromise could be reached.

The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee plans to vote Thursday on Bolten's nomination. Several committee members said they expected him to be confirmed. Bolten previously served as White House deputy chief of staff for policy.

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