Panel approves hiring reform, expands whistleblower protections

A Senate panel on Wednesday approved by voice vote legislation to overhaul federal hiring procedures and extend whistleblower protection to intelligence community employees.

The 2009 Federal Hiring Process Improvement Act, sponsored by Sens. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, and Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, passed the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee without debate. The legislation eliminates from the job application process essay requirements designed to demonstrate federal knowledge, skills and abilities in favor of resumes and cover letters. It also calls for agencies to eliminate jargon from job postings, develop workforce plans and measure the success of hiring reform.

Legislators have expressed frustration that the current hiring system is inefficient, burdensome and alienates potential candidates. In response, Office of Management and Budget Director Peter R. Orszag and Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry have begun developing guidelines to help agencies streamline the hiring processes.

Lawmakers also approved the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act, which extends protection to intelligence community employees and allows whistleblowers to bring major claims to jury trials. These provisions have been sticking points in the past, but many committee members praised the measures, including Committee Chairman Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., who called the bill "good government legislation."

The National Treasury Employees Union joined the Make It Safe Coalition, an alliance of whistleblowers and groups that support them, in a statement supporting the Senate's action. However, the group pledged to seek broader protections from House lawmakers when they consider the legislation. "The Coalition is seeking a final bill that includes permanent access to jury trials for all whistleblowers, truly independent and functional due process for employees of the FBI and other intelligence agencies, and coverage for all federal contractors," the coalition said in a statement.

Stephen M. Kohn, executive director of the National Whistleblowers Center, expressed disappointment over the bill: "The Senate did the right thing in putting forward a provision, which permits federal employees to remove their cases to federal court. However, we hope the procedural and substantive limitations on these fundamental due process rights will be removed as the bill proceeds."

Besides giving a green light to hiring reforms and expanded whistleblower protection, the committee easily approved Christine Griffin's nomination to the OPM deputy director position.

Lawmakers also discussed the 2009 Postal Service Retiree Health Benefits Funding Reform Act, which would make changes to the service's retiree benefits plan and borrowing privileges. Their concerns centered around projected financial losses at the U.S. Postal Service and its reinstatement to the Government Accountability Office's high-risk list. "Doing nothing is not an option," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, the committee's ranking member. "This is indeed a crisis."

Several amendments to the bill passed by voice vote. These would allow the Postal Service to continue borrowing money but keep the $15 billion debt limit, move the GAO fiscal stability reporting deadline forward, allow union arbitrators to consider Postal Service fiscal health in negotiations, and prohibit bonuses for senior executives. The committee was unable to reach agreement on moving the legislation forward, however, and will reconsider and vote on it at a later date.

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