Hill Urges Caution in Civil Service Changes

The lawmakers weighed in a day after the administration unveiled a new personnel system at the Department of Homeland Security that officials say will make the bureaucracy nimbler and able to quickly respond to security threats in an era of global terrorism. A similar plan is under construction at the Defense Department.

Congress authorized the civil service reorganization at Homeland Security and Defense within the past three years after administration officials argued that decades-old federal work rules were overly restrictive and rewarded employees more for the longevity of their service than for the quality of their work. Bush administration officials said Wednesday that they will ask Congress to extend the new "flexibility" to all agencies to more strongly tie pay to performance and to ease the transfer of employees and money to where they can be most effective.

But some lawmakers contacted yesterday said there should be no rush.

"The personnel systems at DOD and DHS are experiments in creating flexible personnel systems," said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which would have to approve any legislation. "I think it is prudent to see how these systems fare before deciding whether to expand the reforms to other federal agencies."

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), the ranking Democrat on the panel, agreed, saying in a statement: "We should see how it works before we consider whether it would be appropriate for agencies without critical national security responsibilities."

Rep. Henry A. Waxman (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee, expressed similar concerns. "Congress granted DOD and DHS personnel flexibilities in recognition of their particular national security mission. That rationale doesn't apply to the rest of the government," he said in a statement.

The new DHS system took two years to develop and will require four more to implement. Internal working groups are crafting the still-secret DOD plan, which would apply to more than 700,000 civilian workers. Together, the new systems will affect nearly half of the government's 1.8 million civilian employees, moving large chunks of the federal workforce off the General Schedule and its familiar 15 pay grades.

Clay Johnson III, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, said this week that other agencies could develop new systems more quickly "because we've learned a lot from the DHS and DOD rules."

Smaller-scale experiments with changing pay systems at the Internal Revenue Service and the Federal Aviation Administration have produced mixed results. Managers at both agencies have said that it is easier to recruit talented workers at higher salaries than before, but it has also been difficult to create new pay systems that rank-and-file employees view as fair.

The current civil service system dates to the Pendleton Act of 1883, which replaced the "spoils system" of distributing jobs through political patronage with a merit-based system.

Presidents and most lawmakers in recent years have shown little interest in spending political capital on such arcane issues as personnel rules. But President Bush made the revision of civil service rules at DHS a key condition for the creation of the department after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The DOD and DHS plans have drawn significant criticism from federal employee unions, which contend that they erode workers' rights and make pay raises dependent on winning favor with the boss.

"They've been after the General Schedule system for a while, and this is just an easy excuse to dismantle it government-wide," said Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union.

Kelley's union and three others filed a lawsuit in federal District Court yesterday to block new DHS restrictions on collective bargaining and employee appeals, saying the changes go further than Congress permitted in the legislation creating the department.

John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said 800 union activists from around the country will visit their representatives on Capitol Hill on Feb. 8 to voice concerns about the civil service changes.

"This is not modern management," Gage said. "This is going back in time. This system is cronyism. It's throwing politics again into the civil service."

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