Staffing Rules With a Twist

Lawmakers slam DoD personnel plan, but it's a chip off the old block.

Things are rarely what they seem on Capitol Hill. A classic example is the debate over Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's proposal to change the personnel management rules for 734,000 civilian employees at the Defense Department. Rumsfeld wants staffing flexibilities similar to the ones Congress has granted itself, but many senators and representatives are in a big lather about his ideas. Having worked in both the civil service system and on Capitol Hill during the last 31 years, I find much irony in the controversy. The greatest irony of all is that Rumsfeld's critics are right; the staffing rules on Capitol Hill are an atrocious model for Defense.

Rumsfeld wants to be able to hire, fire, promote, and transfer employees quickly, to increase pay based on performance, and to simplify negotiations with unions. He told the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee in May, "We simply aren't cutting it" in the modern age with the "industrial era" civil service system.

Rumsfeld deserves a lot of sympathy. For years, I worked under the old civil service rules at the General Accounting Office. It took months to hire people and years to fire even the most indolent. Everyone collected predestined pay increases regardless of merit. The workday was filled with mind-numbing paperwork, and anything longer than an eight-hour day was cause for audible groaning.

Congress imposed this bureaucratic nightmare on federal managers for good reason. Civil service rules make it tricky for patronage, nepotism, political bias, personal favoritism and gross incompetence to rule the federal staffing roost.

Lawmakers say they are distressed that Defense employees should be transformed to the base hirelings of the pre-civil service era. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said at a House Government Reform and Oversight hearing in April that Rumsfeld's plan would "strip 700,000 employees of the Defense Department of some of their most basic rights, such as the right to notice before they are fired and the right to join a union." Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., warned in a statement to the news media in May, of the "natural temptation for future Department of Defense officials to reward loyalty over quality of performance and provide pay and promotions to those who tell senior officials what they want to hear." Even some Republicans took a shot. Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, criticized the lack of whistleblower protection.

The truth is that members of Congress love Rumsfeld's staff management ideas.

The system on Capitol Hill has all the characteristics Rumsfeld wants. Hiring, firing and transfers can be instantaneous, and pay raises are strictly meritorious. If a senator likes the cut of your jib when you visit his office, he can tell you to go straight to the Senate Disbursing Office to be sworn in and start work on his staff the next pay period. If the senator's payroll is maxed out, he can boot anyone to make room for you.

Patronage? Next time you are in one of the House office buildings, ask the person operating the fully automatic elevator how he or she got the job. Political bias? Check out how many registered Democrats Republican Leader Tom DeLay of Texas has on his staff and how many Republicans Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California has on hers. Nepotism? Next time you visit a senator or representative's office, note any coincidences in the member's and staffers' last names. There are no civil service protections on Capitol Hill.

The system is designed to ensure a staff that is eager to please the boss. Saying things a senator doesn't want to hear isn't exactly a career enhancing activity. One way to really test the senator's patience is to write an essay criticizing him and his colleagues. It can end a Hill career; trust me.

Some believe the Hill reformed itself in 1995 when it passed the Congressional Accountability Act to end its exemptions from civil service rules. Congress even set up an Office of Compliance to enforce the new rules. But it all was a sham. Congress carefully forgot to end its self-exemption from the 1989 Whistleblower Protection Act. The Office of Compliance said in its 2002 annual report that when some Hill employers find out an employee has initiated a complaint, the real harassment starts. Because of this open season of "intimidation and reprisal," the report concluded, the protections Congress legislated are "illusory."

Compared with members of Congress, Rumsfeld is a fumbling novice at fostering apple-polishing. And yet, lawmakers are right to criticize his plan. National security issues need better than the likes of the handiwork on Capitol Hill.

Surely, there is a solution for Defense besides the bureaucratic clog of civil service rules and the political claptrap of Capitol Hill. A good start is Voinovich's idea to add whistleblower protections to Rumsfeld's proposal, but that's not enough. The Merit System Protection Board needs expanded powers and more aggressive leadership to quash Pentagon managers who think their staff's job is to please them. While Voinovich is at it, he should propose whistleblower protection on Capitol Hill. The forthright senators would support him.

Winslow T. Wheeler, a visiting senior fellow at the Center for Defense Information, spent 31 years working for four senators from both parties and for the General Accounting Office. In 2002, he left the Senate Budget Committee after senators complained about his essay criticizing Congress' handling of defense legislation in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001.

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