OPM urged to offer rapid hiring authority for stimulus efforts

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The Office of Personnel Management should give federal agencies blanket fast-track hiring authority to bring back former employees and recruit new workers to implement the massive economic stimulus package, watchdogs and lawmakers said on Thursday.

Currently, agencies must seek waivers from OPM to rehire federal annuitants. They must also get OPM's permission to use direct-hiring authority, a process that can expedite the government's often slow and cumbersome recruitment procedures.

The standard hiring process is not conducive to the urgency and specific needs of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, said Gene Dodaro, acting comptroller general, in testimony before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Stimulus-related work might be particularly attractive to retirees because of its relatively short duration, he said. Most Recovery Act spending will occur by October 2010.

The Government Accountability Office has reached out to dozens of former employees, many of whom have expressed interest in returning on a short-term basis, according to Dodaro. GAO will hire about 100 workers to oversee stimulus spending.

"These people are already trained and can hit the ground running," he said.

Phyllis Fong, the Agriculture Department's inspector general, said her office needs to hire 20 to 30 auditors, 10 investigators and a handful of administrative personnel. USDA is receiving about $28 billion in Recovery Act funding.

The ability to immediately rehire ex-employees "would do a lot to solve our problems," she said.

But Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the committee's ranking member and one of only three Republicans to vote for the stimulus bill, noted that recent government retirees might think twice about returning because their pension would be offset by their temporary salary. Collins said she has sponsored a bill "to get rid of that huge financial disincentive."

An OPM spokesman said agencies are encouraged to hire staff expeditiously, but he was not aware of any formal request by Congress to provide blanket hiring authorities.

Fong and Dodaro testified that if they are forced to use the current hiring system, then they are unlikely to be fully staffed until September.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said the budget crisis is causing states nationwide to offer early retirement packages to veteran auditors. Many of those workers, she said, might be willing to work on the federal level.

"There is a cadre of people on the state level that would be honored to help out for a two- or three- or four-year period," McCaskill said.

The Office of Management and Budget should use the staffing authority granted by the fiscal 2009 Defense authorization act to create a contingency contracting corps, Collins said. The corps would help fill immediate short-term acquisition staffing needs, she said.

Robert Nabors II, OMB's deputy director, said the "corps is on everybody's radar," but he did not know about specific progress in implementing the program.

Last month, OMB issued detailed guidance to agency heads for administering stimulus funds. Nabors said he was pleased with the progress agencies were making in fulfilling the requirements outlined in the memorandum. For example, 23 of 25 agencies have submitted their first weekly reports summarizing stimulus spending and major actions to date.

"These projects should meet high standards of economic value and equally high standards when judged by the public for fairness and impartiality," he said.

Thus far, more than $15 billion in Medicaid grant awards and $10 billion to support green jobs, revive failing housing markets and reduce homelessness already have been allocated, Nabors said. Billions more for states, highway and transit construction, unemployment insurance, food stamps and grants to hire additional police officers have been allocated or will be later this month, he said.

Meanwhile, Rep. Edolphus Towns, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, on Thursday announced that he will hold field hearings on how the stimulus funding is being spent. The first will take place in Towns' home district of Brooklyn, N.Y., on April 20. He has planned another hearing for early June in California.

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