Drawing Fire

Tempers heat up during the comment period for Defense's draft personnel rules.

"This is the worst piece of legislation I have ever read," one commenter wrote. "Cronyism is back," declared a second. "Pay decided by a kiss-up supervisor that uses his position to screw around, no more cost-of-living increases, taught to shut up, say 'Yes, sir,' or ship out. . . . I don't like this plan," complained a third.

More than 90 percent of the 60,000 comments that arrived at the Pentagon in March and April expanded on those themes, condemning draft rules issued in February for the Defense Department's new personnel system.

And though they stated their critiques more artfully, that was the message senators of both parties gave Navy Secretary Gordon England last month, as he took a beating during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the draft regulations.

In the next few weeks, the Defense Department will issue final regulations detailing the National Security Personnel System it plans to launch in July. Given pressure from employees and lawmakers, the question is: Will the final rules be much different from the draft?

After meeting Senate Armed Services Committee members in mid-April, and then with unions, England heard from both sides. Most worrisome for him was the harsh assessment from Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. As chairwoman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, she was a key player in drafting legislation that gave the Pentagon authority to create the system. Without her blessing, opponents could argue that the plan fails to meet Congress' intent.

Unions already have filed one lawsuit against Defense, saying Pentagon leaders failed to negotiate with them in the run-up to the draft rules. More could be on the way when Defense finalizes its rules. The Homeland Security Department, which won congressional authority to rewrite personnel rules in 2002 and finalized a new system earlier this year, is facing a union lawsuit charging that it violated congressional intent by scaling back collective bargaining.

Labor negotiations are a major sticking point at Defense as well. Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, pressed England, saying the draft rules eviscerate bargaining rights. They indicate that Defense no longer plans to bargain over work assignments, deployments or the use of technology. Akaka called the limits "particularly egregious."

Comments, mostly from anonymous Defense employees, also raised concerns about pay for performance, arguing that managers might use it to reward and punish workers. "This is a means to bolster the good-old-boys clubs of America," one wrote.

Collins focused on two issues: limiting the authority of the Merit Systems Protection Board, the federal agency that adjudicates employee appeals of disciplinary actions, and creating the National Security Labor Relations Board to take over functions now controlled by the Federal Labor Relations Authority, arbiter of unfair labor practices. She said Defense went too far in prohibiting the MSPB from reducing agency disciplinary penalties, except when they are "wholly without justification."

Collins questioned the new labor board's credi-bility with workers because its members could be appointed by the Defense secretary without their input. FLRA, by contrast, is independent. "That's a really bad approach because it heightens this feeling that it's management versus labor, which we're trying to get away from," she said.

England dodged many questions at the hearing, saying that much was left to be resolved. Ultimately, he was conciliatory. Whether the final rules will win over skeptics, though, seems doubtful. If they don't, then Congress will have a tough choice: Stop Defense in its tracks, seek a middle ground, or allow the department to move ahead.