Presto Change-o at Defense

D

emocrats got rolled again last month when House Republicans moved another step closer to granting the Defense Department's request for sweeping authority to build a new personnel system almost from scratch. It was the most stunning breakout since William Holden's great escape in Stalag 17.

Assuming the Senate goes along, which is anyone's guess, the legislation would spring 750,000 Defense employees from the civil service system, marking the end of an era. With 200,000 employees at the Homeland Security Department already outside the system, 100,000 operating under flexible rules at the Internal Revenue Service and the Federal Aviation Administration, and 250,000 working under a separate (albeit outdated) system at Veterans Affairs, the civil service system would apply to little more than a third of the federal workforce.

As Government Executive's Brian Friel rightly pointed out in the June issue, the problem facing the Defense Department and the rest of government is not necessarily the impending retirement wave. Indeed, the turnover rate in government might actually be too low, especially at the middle and upper levels.

Moreover, as Friel reported, there are plenty of applicants for most government jobs. More than 1.5 million people applied for the 62,000 baggage and passenger screening jobs at the Transportation Security Administration last year, while another 47,000 applied for 900 Federal Bureau of Investigation jobs, 23,500 applied for 465 Foreign Service slots, and 20,000 applied for 270 information technology jobs at Agriculture.

The challenge is not getting enough applicants, however, but getting the right applicants. The vast majority of the TSA applicants were rejected because they could not read or write, pass the initial screening test, or were not U.S. citizens. Recent reports also suggest that a troubling number of final hires have criminal records.

Unfortunately, by almost any measure, the federal government's human capital system does not work. According to a recent survey of 1,002 liberal arts and social work students who are about to graduate, the nonprofit sector, not the federal government, is now seen as the destination of choice for young Americans who want a public service career. Not only is government in general seen as far less effective than nonprofits at helping people, spending money wisely and making fair decisions, its hiring process is seen as the most difficult, the slowest and the most confusing.

The Defense proposal would certainly address some of these problems. It would give recruiters authority to offer jobs on the spot at career fairs, for example, while expanding the number of qualified candidates.

However, in its push for special hiring authorities, Defense neglected an essential piece of the process-bipartisanship and consultation with federal employee unions. Sensing an opportunity to move quickly, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld pushed the idea forward in what one House Democrat described as another "shock and awe" campaign. Hearings were scheduled overnight, witnesses were given only a day or two to prepare testimony, and the bill was marked up for passage a day or two later. Like last year's Homeland Security legislation, the proposal moved through the House on straight party line votes with nary a Democrat in support of the overall package

That's been a problem for Democrats. Lacking any alternatives of their own, they've been trotting out much of the same rhetoric they used last year. Democrats are right to fear that the Defense bill is moving too fast. And they have good reason to worry about giving the Defense secretary carte blanche on hiring and firing rules. It is one thing to streamline the disciplinary process, for example, and quite another to eliminate employees' right to appeal.

The status quo is no longer good enough for government work. But that hasn't stopped Democrats from falling back into their old rap. If the civil service system is good enough for other agencies, they argue, it is good enough for Defense.

Luckily, at least one Democrat, Michigan Sen. Carl Levin, has decided to join with his Republican colleagues, Susan Collins, George Voinovich and John Sununu, in drafting a bipartisan amendment to the Defense proposal. Defense would clearly get less than it wanted under the bipartisan proposal, particularly under a requirement to phase in the reforms 120,000 employees at a time. But it would get more than it needs to do the job. More importantly, a bipartisan bill would send a signal to all federal employees that human capital reform is not a one-party issue, while establishing a template to govern the mad rush for the gates that is sure to follow as other departments and agencies seek their freedom.

That is just the kind of signal that anxious federal employees need right now. Instead of making reform a Rumsfeld referendum, Congress should work hard to reach a bipartisan consensus at this critical crossroads.


Paul C. Light is director of the Brookings Institution's Center for Public Service and a professor at New York University's Wagner School of Public Service.


NEXT STORY: Pride and Perseverance

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