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Rumsfeld's Personnel Plan Draws Fire From Both Sides at Hearing

June 05, 2003|Esther Schrader | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of senators clashed with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld Wednesday over his request for sweeping new powers over the hiring, firing and promoting of the Pentagon's more than 700,000 employees, saying the plan goes too far in dismantling both job protections and congressional oversight.

Rumsfeld told the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee that the Defense Department's outdated personnel system makes it difficult to attract new workers, reward excellence and fire incompetent employees.

He has put forward a plan as part of a $400-billion defense bill that won House approval last month with only slight modifications. The plan would grant authority to the Defense secretary to negotiate with national unions, instead of with the more than 1,300 local union chapters to which Pentagon employees belong. It would allow the Pentagon to shift about 300,000 military support jobs to civilian positions and to base pay raises on performance, not longevity.

The plan in some ways resembles the changes the administration sought -- and largely got -- when Congress created the Department of Homeland Security last fall.

But the Pentagon proposals go significantly further in seeking authority to hire and fire employees at will and waivers to provisions that govern most federal employees.

Lawmakers said Rumsfeld's plan, which would affect more than a quarter of the entire federal civilian workforce, would amount to a damaging shift of power to the executive branch. Senators said they are crafting an alternative aimed at preserving worker rights.

"I've got to ask you, what's the rush?" Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, asked Rumsfeld at the hearing. "These are sweeping changes."

Ohio Republican Sen. George Voinovich said bluntly: "Some of the provisions in the current proposal go too far."

Carl Levin of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, joined with Governmental Affairs Chairwoman Susan Collins (R-Maine) in introducing an alternative proposal this week that Collins said attempts "to strike the right balance between promoting a flexible system and protecting employee rights." For example, it would offer stronger provisions for collective bargaining and appealing disciplinary actions.

"The Defense Department proposal would give the secretary of Defense extraordinarily broad license to hire and fire employees and to set employee compensation virtually without legislated restrictions or constraints," Levin said. "This would not only be the greatest shift of power to the executive branch in memory, it would also put us at risk of a return to some of the abuses of the past."

Rumsfeld said, as he has repeatedly in the past, that the plan would help him move civilians into thousands of desk jobs now handled by uniformed military personnel, freeing resources for the armed services to respond more quickly to threats around the world, and lessening the growing burden on National Guard and Reserve units to handle support jobs.

He said the Pentagon now needs five months to hire a worker and 18 months to fire one.

And he said that the requirement to negotiate with thousands of union locals makes it difficult for the department to attack fraud.

Rumsfeld said, for example, that the Pentagon has been negotiating with the various unions for more than two years for the right to garnish workers' wages in the event of fraud in the use of purchasing cards.

Rumsfeld said the proposal "would not give the department a blank check to change the civil service system unilaterally." Instead, he said, he is seeking to change, among other things, a hiring process that he described as "byzantine" and that he said drives away many talented young people.

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