The White House has convinced members of Congress to modify language in a major spending bill that would have granted federal employees, or union representatives acting on their behalf, the right to appeal agency decisions in public-private job competitions, congressional sources said Tuesday.
Earlier this month, House-Senate negotiators crafted a compromise version of the fiscal 2004 Transportation-Treasury budget bill that granted civil servants the legal standing to protest job competition decisions before the General Accounting Office. But the Bush administration raised last-minute objections to that and other competitive sourcing provisions in the bill.
Because of the administration's opposition, members of the conference committee delayed filing an official conference report on the bill. After days of negotiations, the White House on Monday convinced them to modify the competitive sourcing language.
In addition to granting federal employees appeal rights, the original conference report allowed in-house teams to submit bids in all public-private competitions involving more than more than 10 jobs. And outside bidders would have had to submit bids costing 10 percent or $10 million less--whichever was lower--than the in-house bid in order to win a competition.
The deal reached Monday would eliminate the appeal provision entirely. It would leave the language allowing in-house teams to submit bids intact, but would limit this right to employees at agencies receiving funds from the Transportation-Treasury bill. The original provision applied across the government.
Finally, the deal would not require all agencies to grant in-house teams a cost advantage in competitions involving more than 10 jobs. Instead the agreement directs agencies covered by Transportation-Treasury to "consider cost as one factor" in awarding contracts. Other agencies would not have to be concerned about the cost advantage at all.
The new language is now wrapped into the omnibus fiscal 2004 budget bill filed in the House Tuesday and scheduled for a Dec. 8 House vote. Partly due to concerns about the new competitive sourcing provisions, the Senate may wait until January to consider the bill.
Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle and federal labor union officials were upset by the new language.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., criticized the White House for working behind the scenes in a "relentless campaign" to undermine the conference committee's agreement.
"I want to emphasize that it is not the fault of [members of the Transportation-Treasury conference committee]," Murray said. "This attack on federal workers, on fairness and on taxpayers has only one source-the Bush administration."
The Office of Management and Budget did not respond to a request for comment.
According to congressional sources, even Republican lawmakers generally supportive of the administration were angry that the White House stepped in to delay the filing of a conference report in order to alter carefully negotiated language.
Conference committee members had vetted the language included in the original Transportation-Treasury compromise with OMB, and were surprised when the White House later objected to the report, congressional sources said.
Lawmakers also complained about the substance of the new language. Some were concerned that the bill now establishes multiple competitive sourcing standards for agencies. Agencies would need to follow separate rules regarding cost advantages depending on whether they are covered by the general omnibus, the omnibus provisions applying only to Transportation and Treasury, or the already enacted Defense and Interior department budget bills.
The elimination of appeals rights is also a sore spot for lawmakers and labor unions. Industry groups had complained that the rights were too broad and would open the door for unions to protest public-private job competitions at every turn.
House Government Reform Committee Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., agreed that the appeal provisions in the original conference report were too broad. He had suggested eliminating the wording that allowed union representatives to enter appeals on behalf of civil servants.
But Davis supports granting federal employees some form of legal standing to protest competitive sourcing decisions, and was not satisfied by the new language the administration pushed through. "The failure to include appropriate protest rights is a big loss for federal employees," said Davis spokesman David Marin.
"It is hardly a level playing field when only one side can appeal [competitive sourcing decisions]," said National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen Kelley.