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Congressional Negotiators Strip Buyout Increase for Feds From Defense Bill

Compromise version of annual authorization bill includes steep cuts to departmentwide activities, major hiring reforms.

Lawmakers on Monday evening unveiled a compromise defense authorization package that stripped from a previous version a provision to increase the maximum buyout agencies can offer to federal employees, but included a measure to significantly cut a number of the Pentagon’s back office functions.

A Senate version of the fiscal 2019 National Defense Authorization act would have enabled agencies to pay up to $40,000 to employees opting to participate in a Voluntary Separation Incentive Program. That would have marked an increase from the current maximum of $25,000, which has been the limit since Congress created VSIP in 1993. The Defense Department has maintained a carve-out to offer buyout recipients up to $40,000 for the last two years.

Going forward, the measure would have indexed the maximum buyout to inflation. The White House had pushed Congress to adopt the change. While the Senate approved the provision, the House did not include it in its version and when negotiators went to a bicameral conference committee, they opted not to include it.

The conferees did, however, include a controversial measure to authorize 25 percent cuts to departmentwide activities such as logistics, human resources, services contracts and real property management. That proposal came out of the House only but remained in the conference report. The Pentagon’s chief management officer would in the coming years report on the need to continue and the possibility of eliminating the Defense Contract Management Agency and the Defense Finance and Accounting Service. Lawmakers did not include a provision to eliminate the Washington Headquarters Service and shrink the Defense Information Systems Agency.

The NDAA would require a review of the functions of the chief information officer and the departmentwide activities of the inspector general.

If Defense determines that 25 percent cuts would infringe on its efficient delivery of services, it would have to specify a lower threshold and submit a justification to Congress by Oct. 1, 2019.

Lawmakers included a provision to launch a Strategic Defense Fellows Program aimed at grooming civilians by creating a “career track toward senior leadership in the department.” The fellowship would last for one year and be offered to up to 60 applicants. It would be aimed at recent graduates who would be paid at the GS-10 level. Those selected would receive special mentorship and be offered further career opportunities if they completed the fellowship successfully. The program would be named after Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

The conferees adopted a Senate provision that would allow agency heads to circumvent normal hiring restrictions to bring on university students or those who have recently completed their studies. The agency leader could appoint a “qualified individual” to any competitive service, professional or administrative position at the GS-11 level or below.

Agencies would still be required to adhere to merit system principles and the appointments could not make up more than 15 percent of the number of similar jobs filled in the previous year. Current students appointed under the new authority would serve on a temporary basis, but their agency head could hire them to a permanent position upon their graduation. The Office of Personnel Management would be responsible for creating regulations for the new law and agencies would report annually on their use of the authority.

The Defense Department would gain or continue existing direct hire authority for science, technology, engineering and mathematics vacancies, as well as cybersecurity, maintenance and acquisition positions. That authority would last through 2025. Defense officials would be able to hire up to 25 percent of new workers using the expedited authority for recent graduates.

The congressional negotiators included another Senate provision to enable the Pentagon to no longer have to seek approval from OPM’s qualification review boards for its Senior Executive Service appointments. Instead, the Defense secretary would have unilateral authority to elevate employees to the top career civilian jobs. Defense would be capped at 50 such appointments per year, and the authority would sunset after two years.

The Senate proposed in its version of the NDAA expediting security clearances for “mission-critical” positions. The department would have had to rule on clearances for secret positions within 15 days and top secret positions within 45 days. In the compromise bill, however, lawmakers agreed only to require a report on the feasibility of such a program.

The House will begin consideration of the bicameral agreement this week.

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