Davis cautious on civil service reform

The White House's decision to restructure the federal personnel system for the first time in decades is putting House Government Reform Committee Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., in a tough spot. Taking a leadership role in pushing the president's plan might compromise his relationship with his constituents.

So far Davis, whose Northern Virginia district is home to more than 50,000 federal employees, has treaded lightly. He has greeted with caution -- but not overt criticism -- the White House proposal to extend to the full bureaucracy personnel flexibilities already granted to the Homeland Security and Defense departments.

"The ink is barely dry on the new regulations at DHS. They're not yet set in at DoD," Davis said in an interview with CongressDaily. "We want to give people a chance to work under this, air it out." Davis said he wanted to see a more "tangible" proposal from the administration than what Office of Management and Budget is asking for now: quick, sweeping authorizing legislation and a pledge to work out the details of implementation later.

"I know they love it, but they've got a long way to go on this one," Davis said, adding, "We're not shutting the door. We plan to keep an open dialogue with the administration." He acknowledged the proposal could be a tough sell for him and other panel members, particularly with the full effect on DHS and Pentagon still not known.

Davis also questioned the idea of allowing each agency to create its own personnel system, saying government-wide uniformity is needed because many workers switch departments during the course of their careers.

An OMB official who met with Davis recently said the proposal, included in President Bush's fiscal 2006 budget request, will be a top legislative priority. "I think everybody would agree that we're going to do this. It's not whether we're going to do this, it's when," the official said. "We want to get them to agree that this is the year that it should be done."

The official, who is responsible for selling the proposal on Capitol Hill, has also met with Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Government Management Subcommittee Chairman George Voinovich, R-Ohio. He plans to talk to House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., in coming days.

But even as they work to broaden support, OMB officials appear to see the House -- and Davis' committee in particular -- as the logical starting point for legislation.

Davis, who championed the personnel changes at the Pentagon, said the Senate "never got a free shot" at voting on those changes, which were added to the defense authorization bill in conference. "The House drove this both times," he said, referring to the separate measures that enacted changes at Homeland Security and the Pentagon. "They're asking the House again to do the heavy lifting on this one."

Union officials, who plan to fight hard against making the changes governmentwide, agree the proposals have not gained traction in the Senate and say they will watch Davis closely. "The pressure on Davis from the administration on this is going to be tremendous," said one union official. "I don't doubt that for a second."

"Tom Davis is a very shrewd person," the union official said. "He'll be making a calculation based on whether or not he thinks the Senate is going to act. He's not going to ask his committee members to walk the plank on something that's just going to die in the Senate."

She said she plans to educate and mobilize federal employees on the new regulations, including those in Davis' district.

A former National Republican Congressional Committee chairman with a history of bucking his party to support federal workers and Washington residents, Davis has enjoyed relatively good relations with federal employees' unions. But they were angered by his support for the Pentagon's personnel changes.

Davis said he "went out on a limb" for those changes because Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was specific about what he wanted to see in the new regulations and why they were needed. Despite vehement union opposition to the new Homeland Security and Pentagon systems, Davis said he has "surprisingly" not heard many complaints from his constituents. But he said it might be too early for many federal workers to get a clear picture of what it will be like to work under them.

Rep. James Moran, D-Va., who represents a neighboring district, reported a more negative reaction. "Most federal employees I've talked to view the Bush administration's personnel flexibilities initiative at DHS and DOD as the first step in a systematic effort to weaken personnel protections in the civil service system," Moran said in a statement.

Davis, who won his sixth term last year with 60 percent of the vote, has not been a Democratic target recently. Still, the Virginia Democratic Party said it would monitor Davis' response to the proposal. A spokesman for state Democrats said Davis' words of caution show politically savvy. "You can tell by his actions this is a pill the size of Kansas for him to swallow," the Democrat said.

If Davis lends his support to the proposal, it might give Democrats an opening, the party spokesman said. "We're going to make sure if he moves forward on this that we beat him about the head and the neck with it. He can be guaranteed of that."

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