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House panel votes down civil service protections

Two attempts to give standard civil service protections to federal employees at the proposed Homeland Security Department were defeated at a House hearing Friday.

Two attempts to give standard civil service protections to federal employees at the proposed Homeland Security Department were defeated during a hearing of the House Homeland Security Committee on Friday.

In a series of party-line votes, Republicans defeated two Democrat-backed amendments before approving civil service language drafted by Rep. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.

Democrats first offered a provision approved by the Government Reform Committee that would give the department's 170,000 employees the same labor protections enjoyed by other federal employees. Rep. Martin Frost, D-Texas, then offered a provision proposed by Rep. Constance Morella, R-Md., that would have expanded labor protections. But Republicans shelved both amendments on 5-4 votes before adopting the Portman language.

Portman's amendment prohibits the administration from waiving basic employment laws for employees of the proposed department, including the Civil Rights Act and 1973 Rehabilitation Act. It also mandates that the department's new personnel management system be "grounded in the public employment principles of merit and fitness." But the new department could still create its own pay and performance appraisal system, and employees would not have standard due-process rights if they were disciplined or fired.

The Portman language also allows employees to join unions, although this right could be revoked for national security reasons. Beth Moten, legislative director for the American Federation of Government Employees, said this rendered the provision toothless.

"Given that the title of the new agency would be the Department of Homeland Security, it's easy to imagine that this administration…would abuse the privilege of excluding categories of workers and possibly the entire agency," she said.

Jason Peckenpaugh contributed to this report.