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Bush Aims to Privatize Many Federal Jobs

About 850,000 civilian workers would face competition. Unions, Democrats decry move.

November 15, 2002|Edwin Chen | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — President Bush plans to allow the private sector to compete for nearly half of the nation's 1.8 million federal civilian jobs, the White House said Thursday in a move that enraged labor unions and their Democratic allies in Congress.

As many as 850,000 workers -- covering a wide range of white- and blue-collar jobs -- could be affected, according to the White House Office of Management and Budget.

"We're talking about every imaginable type of job: military logistics and support, information technology, data collection, people who work in OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration], in mine safety," said Jacqueline Simon, public policy director of the 600,000-member American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employee union.

Other jobs subject to privatization under Bush's plan include mapmakers, computer programmers, engineers, landscapers, park-fee collectors, road builders and lens- and eyeglass-makers, according to Trent Duffy, an OMB spokesman. High-ranking government jobs will not be affected, the administration said.

The White House said the change was designed to reduce costs and increase the federal bureaucracy's efficiency.

"What we're trying to do is make government work better for the American taxpayer," White House Deputy Press Secretary Scott McClellan told reporters.

But Simon denounced the move.

"It's certainly one aspect of union-busting," she said.

In taking on one of the Democratic Party's core constituencies, the abrupt and unilateral move by the president suggested that he is prepared to play hardball despite his postelection call for bipartisan cooperation.

At the White House, McClellan called the positions "non-core" jobs and said studies have shown that such privatization can save "in excess of 30%." The theory is that competitive bidding will force the bureaucracy to lower costs and improve service, or lose jobs to the private sector.

The White House sent the new rules to the Federal Register for publication today after posting them Thursday on the Web site of the OMB (http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/circulars/a076/a76_111402.doc). They would take effect after a 30-day comment period, Duffy said. The administration wants at least 15% of the jobs opened to competition by October.

Administration officials said the president's initiative does not require congressional approval. Privatization efforts have been allowed since 1998 under the Federal Activities Inventory Reform Act, although there have been few efforts beyond the Defense Department.

But some analysts nevertheless predicted controversy.

"This isn't like pouring gas on fire. It's more like pouring nitroglycerin on fire," said Paul C. Light, a government studies expert at the Brookings Institution, a centrist Washington public policy center.

For a variety of reasons, the timing of Bush's move was a surprise.

To be sure, it comes at a time when Republican priorities face daunting obstacles because of a mounting budget deficit and privatizing jobs would remove them from the government payroll. In addition, the move surely would please private contractors, a traditional Republican constituency.

But the president's initiative also flies in the face of his months-long efforts to court elements of the labor movement, particularly the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America.

Now all that could change, predicted Norman J. Ornstein, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank.

"This seems like a radical plan that would unite Democrats and a lot of their allies," he said.

Ornstein and other analysts also said the privatization drive raised questions about Bush's recent assertions that his insistence upon greater management leeway over employees in the proposed Department of Homeland Security was not motivated by a desire to privatize the work force and should not be seen as anti-union.

"This is going to really cast some serious doubt on their motives in the homeland security area," Ornstein said.

Added Light: "This is a form of bureaucratic trash talking that obviously inflames labor."

On Capitol Hill, some of labor's most ardent champions quickly offered their own withering critique of the Bush plan.

"Now we see the real White House agenda -- it's not homeland security, it's union-busting," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the senior Democrat on the Labor and Human Resources Committee.

"This proposal means that the safety of our communities could be entrusted to the administration's favorite companies and their lobbyists, instead of to dedicated, trained federal workers," he added.

The OMB's Duffy rejected the notion that the president's initiative is anti-union.

"This is to give taxpayers the best deal for their dollar and the best service of their government," he said.

But Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said: "I have often found that privatizing federal responsibilities leads to higher costs to the taxpayer and a lower quality of services.

"At this time of national and economic insecurity for so many Americans ... I don't understand why the president would place 800,000 workers who have good jobs, good pensions and good health care in jeopardy."

Duffy said the administration expects the unions to compete and win many contracts.

But with the exception of the Defense Department, little such competition has occurred, according to Light. One reason, he said, is that such competitions can be time-consuming and "very expensive to conduct."

In successful competitions, private firms are supposed to be selected by federal agencies if the companies demonstrate that they can provide a product or a service at a savings of 10% or more, Light said.

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