Bush effort to overhaul civil service is fizzling

His latest bill has yet to find a sponsor

November 17, 2005|By MELISSA HARRIS | MELISSA HARRIS,SUN REPORTER

President Bush unveiled this week details of his proposal to bring pay-for-performance to the federal work force, but opponents - and even some supporters - say the initiative launched this year is dead for now, a victim of the president's falling political fortunes and court victories by labor unions.

The proposed Working for America Act would be the broadest overhaul of the government's personnel rules since the civil service began about a century ago.

It would replace a familiar system of across-the-board raises with one that supporters said would enhance customer service and reward extra effort.

The bill has yet to find a sponsor in Congress, having drawn the fire of public employee unions that provide key financial and organizational support for Democrats.

The debut of similar systems at the Homeland Security Department and the Pentagon have not gone well since their approval earlier in the administration.

Unions have won two favorable court rulings blocking parts of the rules at Homeland Security. And the Pentagon agreed yesterday to further delay some reforms until Feb. 1.

Congressional leaders have cooled to the idea of expanding changes to the rest of the government's 1.3 million white-collar workers. About 130,000 of those employees work in Maryland, along with thousands more who live in the state and commute to federal jobs in adjoining states and the District of Columbia. The federal government is the state's largest employer.

"There has been very weak implementation at the two big agencies on which this whole idea is based," said Paul C. Light, an expert on the civil service at New York University, who called further changes "a dead letter."

"It has gone every way but smoothly, and Congress right now is saying wait and see what happens," Light said.

This week, the Office of Management and Budget tried to assuage some senators' concerns about the pay-for-performance approach. Under the president's proposal, the program would be centralized. Performance evaluation policies would be identical across agencies, and during the first five years, departments would be told how much they could spend on performance-based raises.

Rep. Jon Porter, a Nevada Republican whose subcommittee probably would be first to consider the bill, said he isn't convinced that the Working for America Act is the way to go.

Porter expressed an interest in lopping off parts of the bill that stifle union rights, hoping to avoid the lawsuits that have stymied the changes.

"This issue is a clean slate for me," Porter said. "I'm listening to labor, I'm listening to management, and I'm trying to avoid the pitfalls that we've experienced at two other agencies. I think there's a lot of common ground, but I don't think we're there yet."

Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland calls the act "unacceptable."

"All of America's federal employees deserve a personnel system that is fair, credible and transparent," said Mikulski. "Instead, DHS employees have been given a system riddled with cronyism, without job protections, and limiting their right to collective bargaining."

Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said through a spokeswoman yesterday that the union was making progress in blocking the changes. "We have gained support for what we have said all along: It's premature to rush to make changes elsewhere until we see what happens at Homeland Security and Defense," she said.

Two of the country's largest federal employee unions - the American Federation of Government Employees, which has 600,000 members, and NTEU, with 150,000 members - endorsed Sen. John Kerry's presidential candidacy last year. The two unions supported the Democratic candidate by manning phone banks and traveling to contested states to knock on doors.

Overhauling the civil service has been a priority of the Bush administration, which first succeeded - over bitter labor opposition - in including a pay-for-performance system in the legislation that created the Department of Homeland Security. The draft of the Working for America Act became public in early June.

Sen. Susan M. Collins, a Maine Republican and a key figure in the bill's future, has said that decisions on "whether, how and when to proceed" should be based on experiences with reforms at the Pentagon and Homeland Security Department.

Personnel reforms have been delayed for one year at the Homeland Security Department, where a judge has blocked portions of the new rules pending the outcome of appeals on her rulings.

The Defense Department - the government's largest agency - also faces a lawsuit from unions, and in light of that, the agency agreed yesterday to delay the most controversial items in its reforms until Feb. 1. Both sides hope to have a court ruling by then, said Mark Gibson of the American Federation of Government Employees.

"Right now, this act isn't going to get through Congress because the president can't get anything through Congress," Light said. "And if he could, it's not going to be a piece of legislation on government management reform."

melissa.harris@baltsun.com

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