Spending bill trims $5 million more from DHS personnel system

A spending measure approved earlier this week in the House would reduce by another $5 million the fiscal 2007 appropriation for the Homeland Security Department's new personnel system.

The action comes four months after lawmakers withheld millions from the system, known as MaxHR, under the fiscal 2007 Homeland Security appropriations bill approved in late September. That measure allotted $25 million to MaxHR, far less than the $71.5 million requested in the president's budget and the $29.7 million Congress apportioned for 2006.

The $463.5 billion spending measure House members passed Wednesday (H.J. RES. 20) is not focused on DHS - rather it is intended to fund the operations of domestic agencies for which Congress failed to approve appropriations bills last session. But it contains language that would reduce DHS' spending on MaxHR to $20 million, shaving $5 million off the level in the department's appropriations bill.

The personnel system, authorized by Congress in 2002 when it created DHS, would feature a market- and performance-based pay approach to replace the decades-old General Schedule under which most civil servants work.

But labor unions have strongly contested implementation of MaxHR, claiming it will encourage cronyism and result in salary cuts in the long term. National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen Kelley recently called the system "fundamentally flawed," saying it threatens national security and causes dangerously low morale among front-line employees.

NTEU worked with Congress to reduce spending for the system, and on Thursday praised lawmakers' recent action.

"This cut sends a clear message that Congress is not pleased with DHS' approach to personnel management," Kelley said. "I hope this action, coupled with the department's dismal results from the Office of Personnel Management employee survey, will serve as a wake-up call that DHS has been moving in the wrong direction in managing its most valuable asset -- its employees."

A court case brought by NTEU and other labor unions concluded in June when a panel of judges said the proposed labor relations portion of the personnel system gave too much power to department management and did not provide adequate collective bargaining rights for employees. In September, the solicitor general's office passed up the chance to reverse the ruling in the Supreme Court. Without labor reforms, DHS has been unable to bring its unionized employees into the human resources system.

DHS budget documents indicate that the requested $41.8 million increase from fiscal 2006 would have been used in part to create 29 positions, including six spots on the Homeland Security Labor Relations Board, which would take the place of the Federal Labor Relations Authority in adjudicating labor-management disputes. The additional funding also would have gone toward centralizing human resources functions and hiring, placement and training initiatives, budget documents show.

"Money for personnel can be better spent on vital mission-critical priorities," Kelley said. "In Customs and Border Protection, there is a serious need for more staffing, more training and more resources."

DHS did not return calls seeking comment. Cuts to a similar system, the Defense Department's National Security Personnel System, also were made in September, but additional cuts for the program were not made in the continuing resolution. A case involving the legalities of Defense's proposed labor relations system is currently under appeal.

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