A Veterans Affairs Department request to restart its competitive sourcing program fell on deaf ears in Congress Friday, as the House passed the fiscal 2004 VA spending bill without granting the agency permission to resume one of the biggest job competition efforts in government.
The Bush administration had requested authority to tap up to $75 million in health care funds- $25 million in fiscal 2003 and $50 million in fiscal 2004-to pay Veterans Health Administration personnel who help stage job competitions. Federal law prevents VA from conducting cost comparisons on VHA jobs unless Congress provides specific funding for the competitions, which has not occurred to date.
But the House did not approve the administration's request Friday.
"Nothing at all has happened with respect to the competitive sourcing language, so at this point we're just cautiously optimistic and hopeful that some action will be taken before the appropriations process concludes," said Dennis Duffy, VA's principal deputy assistant secretary for policy and planning.
Without congressional approval, the VA cannot resume a competitive sourcing program that aimed to compete 28,000 VHA jobs by the end of 2004, and 55,000 agency jobs over the next five years. The VA program has been on hold since May, when the department's general counsel determined that federal law required the VHA to seek congressional approval before continuing job competitions.
The VA still could receive funds for competitive sourcing in the Senate version of the VA appropriations bill, although Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., the ranking member on the VA-HUD appropriations subcommittee, has pledged to fight the funding request.
"I am absolutely opposed to the administration's recent request to spend $75 million in veterans' medical care funding on studies of how to outsource jobs at the Department of Veterans Affairs," she wrote in a July 16 letter to Office of Management and Budget Director Joshua Bolten. The White House may be able to add funding authority to the VA bill during an expected House-Senate conference over the legislation.
If the VA's funding request is denied, the department will explore holding job competitions at the Veterans Benefits Administration and National Cemetery Administration, although these agencies have relatively few commercial jobs that could be competed, according to Duffy.
"In all truthfulness, the payback for competition at those agencies is not nearly as extensive as the large numbers of [jobs] that can and probably should be studied in the VHA," he said.
An official with the American Federation of Government Employees said the union would continue to oppose efforts to restart the VA's competitive sourcing program.
"We're going to remain vigilant because I don't think the administration is going to give up that fast on their privatization initiative," said Linda Bennett, a lobbyist with the American Federation of Government Employees. "They are just so committed to outsourcing that they are not going to give up."
Stan Soloway, president of the Professional Services Council, an association of contractors based in Arlington, Va., said the House Republican leadership should have approved the VA request. "It certainly raises questions about where the leadership was," he said. "This is extremely problematic for the VA."