WASHINGTON, D.C. – At today’s hearing by the Armed Services Committee, senators from both sides of the aisle expressed serious concern over various aspects of a new personnel system proposed by the Department of Defense for the management of its 700,000 civilian employees. John Gage, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) testified before the committee on behalf of the United DoD Workers Coalition, which comprises 36 unions that represent Defense Department employees. AFGE has taken issue with a number of the proposed regulations, including those that would eliminate meaningful collective bargaining, weaken whistleblower protections and open the system to cronyism and favoritism. DoD’s proposed system portends “a disaster” that “will have enormous financial and national security ramifications,” Gage said. Currently, AFGE, together with nine other unions, is challenging the labor relations portion of the proposed National Security Personnel System (NSPS) in federal court.
At the hearing, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) asserted that the proposed new system “is inconsistent with the intent and letter of the law” that authorized the creation of new personnel regulations. In her exchange with Deputy Secretary of Defense nominee Gordon R. England and Dan G. Blair, acting director of the Office of Personnel Management, Collins stated her unease with the virtually unilateral discretion granted the Secretary of Defense under the proposed system in lieu of collective bargaining, and the system’s adoption of a forbidding new standard for overturning an unjust disciplinary action. Collins reminded Blair and England that she was awaiting a reply to a letter she sent them that laid out her concerns.
Much of what Collins found objectionable in the proposed regulations was addressed as well by Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the ranking minority member on the committee. Levin took particular exception to the proposed regulation that would require the imposition of the “maximum permissible penalty” for disciplinary infractions. “Even convicted criminals are not always subject to the maximum permissible penalty,” he said.
Committee Chairman John Warner (R-Va.) also expressed concern about proposed new rules governing the role of the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), a neutral third party, in mitigating unjust penalties against workers. The proposed system, he said, “appears to override MSPB.”
Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) reminded Blair and England that the civil service system was created to prevent patronage, and that collective bargaining aids in that process. “Most modern managers welcome the opportunity to get input from their workers…,” he said. “That’s what collective bargaining does.”
Noting the lack of transparency in the proposed system, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) raised broader constitutional questions. “I am increasingly concerned about the growing erosion of checks and balances in our government,” she said. Those checks and balances, she said, speak to “the genius of our Founders.”
Sen. James Talent (R-Mo.) raised concerns about the so-called “pay for performance” system that the proposed regulations would create, whereby annual raises are no longer guaranteed for satisfactory performers, and workers compete against each other for a salary increase. Talent asked Blair to explain how cronyism could be prevented in such a system. In response, Blair cited “whistleblower protections” and the role of the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), which is charged with protecting federal employees from discrimination and reprisals of any kind. Blair failed to note that the OSC itself is currently under investigation for alleged reprisals against employees who voiced concerns over the action of the OSC director.
Calling the proposed new system “a trip without a compass or a map,” Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), took issue with the lack of detail in the plan, especially with regard to training the DoD employees who will implement it.
When Blair declined to answer a question because of advice from the Department of Justice, Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) offered, “We are seeing decisions coming from the Justice Department that are deficient in good legal analysis—so deficient, in fact, that they’ve had to be repudiated.”
Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) urged the Pentagon and OPM officials to ensure “a sense of shared responsibility” between managers and employees.
Before he concluded the hearing, Chairman Warner recounted the “magnificent relationship” he enjoyed, while serving as Secretary of the Navy, with civilian employees. “We desperately need their services and successes in the years to come,” he said.