Agency heads defend request for broad personnel reforms

While Defense Department officials continued to fend off criticism of the recently unveiled proposal to overhaul the civilian personnel system, smaller scale proposals at NASA and the Securities and Exchange Commission drew few questions from lawmakers Tuesday.

"The Civil Service and National Security Personnel Improvement Act"(H.R.1836) introduced last week by Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, would give NASA and SEC hiring and pay flexibilities to better shape their workforce and prepare for looming retirements, agency officials explained on Tuesday.

"One of the greatest challenges before the agency today is having the people-the human capital-available to forge ahead and make . . . future breakthroughs tomorrow's everyday reality," NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe told members of the House Government Reform Committee.

According to O'Keefe, the waning interest in science and engineering studies is drying up the pool of specialized applicants needed at the agency and warrants the use of such recruitment and retention flexibilities as student loan forgiveness, relocation bonuses, special pay authority, term appointment authority, a science and technology scholarship program and recruitment bonuses. Before taking over at NASA in January 2002, O'Keefe served as deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget and helped craft the president's management agenda.

"This is not a crisis today," O'Keefe told legislators, but "it will be . . . in short order."

O'Keefe's counterpart at the SEC, Chairman William Donaldson, told lawmakers that he needed flexible hiring authorities to hire more than 800 accountants, economists and securities compliance examiners. The extra staffers are needed to help the SEC police Wall Street, Donaldson said. The House Financial Services Committee passed similar legislation in March.

"Given our task of implementing the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley Act, our mission in overseeing our financial markets, and our role in restoring investor confidence during these difficult times, putting additional 'cops on the beat' more quickly to accomplish our goals is absolutely vital," said Donaldson, who was founding dean of the Yale School of Management; ran Aetna, an insurance company; and was head of the New York Stock Exchange before taking over the SEC.

The House Government Reform Committee will vote on the legislation Wednesday, but several committee members voiced concern about the Defense Department portion of the bill, which aims to scrap the General Schedule pay system in exchange for a pay-banding system, implement a separate pay structure for managers and modify job classifications, hiring authorities, pay administration and reduction-in-force procedures. The proposal would also eliminate automatic annual pay increases and instead create a pay-for-performance fund for salary boosts.

"To be sure, there are problems in the federal personnel system, including inadequate performance appraisal systems and inflexibilities in hiring, paying and disciplining employees, which must be addressed," said Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md. "But this bill is even more objectionable for what it does than for how it came to be. This proposal will have the chilling effect of undoing decades of some of the most important worker protections enacted by Congress."

Several legislators voiced objections to the bill's provision to reduce union bargaining powers and give the Defense secretary more power in making administrative decisions. Homeland Security Department officials were given similar authority in the law creating the department.

"Now that the Defense Department has marched through Iraq in three weeks, it intends to do the same with Congress," Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said. "Over and over you've said, 'well, we want what the Homeland Security Department has,' but what they have is an experiment. Tell us what you need and we will try to accommodate that."