Revamp of Defense personnel system may hinge on Senate action

House Republican lawmakers plan to move a bill to the floor this week that includes a Defense Department proposal for revamping its civilian personnel system, despite protests from Democrats and federal employees' unions. At the same time, Senate Republicans are trying to forge an agreement with Democrats in that chamber over the proposal before offering it up as legislation.

Last week the House Armed Services Committee approved the fiscal 2004 National Defense Authorization Act, which included sweeping changes to the Defense civilian personnel system: switching to a pay-banding system, creating a separate pay structure for managers, modifying job classifications, adding fast-track hiring authorities and changing reduction-in-force procedures. More than 700,000 employees would be affected by changes proposed by the bill.

Senate Armed Services Committee members did not include these provisions in their version of the Defense authorization bill, passed on May 9. The full Senate began debate on the bill Monday.

A spokesman for Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, said last week that Voinovich and Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, were crafting a personnel-related amendment to the authorization bill that they hoped to offer on the Senate floor.

"We don't have many details yet, but stay tuned, loyal viewers," said Voinovich spokesman Scott Milburn.

Bonnie Heald, majority spokeswoman for the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, confirmed on Monday that Collins was hammering out a plan with Democrats on the committee, but said specifics of the proposal were unavailable.

Defense officials sent the legislation to Congress on April 10. During the last six weeks, union officials, some government watchdog groups and several Democrats have railed against the proposal, describing it as overreaching.

In a May 13 letter to House leaders, Reps. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., Ike Skelton, D-Mo., David Obey, D-Wis., and John Spratt, D-S.C., said the proposal would "impede Congress' oversight abilities."

On Monday, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said that when debate begins on the authorization bill Wednesday, Democrats would press for an amendment that would maintain existing civil service protections. He described the bill as the "civil service destruction act."

Last week the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employees' union, launched a radio campaign against the proposal. The ads are aimed at Defense employees and are running in Washington, D.C., Ohio, Maine, Alabama and Virginia, according to a union spokeswoman.

"Rushing this legislation though Congress and giving DoD carte blanche to do as it wishes without regard for its workforce or the public will not make our nation safer," said AFGE President Bobby Harnage.

But Defense officials and some lawmakers insist the flexibilities they have asked for are needed to bring the agency into the 21st century and ensure national security.

"When it comes to our civil service system, the tradition of preserving traditions has become a tradition," House Government Reform Committee Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., said on May 8 when that committee signed off on the proposal. "It's time for that to change."

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