Defense bill draws varied reviews from employees, contractors, whistleblowers

Joe Davidson
Columnist December 19, 2012

Defense Department legislation agreed to by House and Senate conference committee members leaves some parts of the federal workplace more jolly than others a few days before Christmas.

Congress is expected to give final approval to the National Defense Authorization Act this week. Within this massive piece of legislation are sections that leave an employee union dissatisfied, a contractors group pleased and whistleblower advocates somewhere in between.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

The American Federation of Government Employees and the Professional Services Council had earlier denounced a proposal to cut the Pentagon’s civilian and contractor workforces. Despite that opposition, the legislation’s oblique language indicates those workforces are in for a 5 percent cut over the next four years.

The NDAA calls on the Defense secretary to “ensure that the civilian personnel workforce and service contractor workforce of the Department of Defense are appropriately sized . . . taking into account military personnel and force structure levels.”

A specific reduction is not mentioned in the legislation, but a document accompanying the bill says: “The conferees understand that current [Defense Department] plans call for a 5 percent reduction in military end strength through fiscal year 2017.”

The bill provides some flexibility, saying “the Secretary of Defense may exclude expenses related to the performance of functions identified as core or critical to the mission of the Department.”

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said he was “encouraged that some of the changes made give the Department of Defense more flexibility than existed in the original bill. I am confident that [Defense] Secretary [Leon E.] Panetta and his successor will not implement the arbitrary cuts to civil employees.”

Although they were aligned in opposing workforce reductions, the labor and contractor organizations have very different reactions to the legislative agreement.

“AFGE members are deeply disappointed by the inequitable approach taken to workforce management policies,” a union statement said. “Reductions in the civilian workforce should be based on workload analysis, i.e., identifying the functions that should no longer be performed by the Department of Defense (DoD) and then dismissing the relevant personnel. Arbitrary cuts are contrary to law and common sense.”

PSC President and chief executive Stan Soloway looked at the same bill and pronounced his organization “pleased to see common sense has prevailed on the key issues.” Alan Chvotkin, PSC’s executive vice president, said the cuts are “not draconian. I don’t expect significant reductions . . . but we know there will be reductions coming for each of us.”

If it appears the civilian workers and contractors would take the same cut, the AFGE has this reply: “Wrong.”

Citing comments by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the AFGE said spending on contractors has more than doubled since 2000. “Given that most of this explosive growth in service contracting was intended to be short-term, there is no question that contractors should bear a higher percentage of cuts,” the union statement said.

Again citing Levin, the AFGE said: “DoD can’t reliably cut service contracting costs because it lacks an inventory of contract services. . . . Inevitably, this means that the cuts are far more likely to be carried out on civilian personnel and less so on contractors, even though the civilian workforce is cheaper and smaller.”

The contractors also beat back an attempt by organized labor and others to cap federal reimbursement to private company personnel working for the government. Instead, PSC said the legislation “smartly requires the Government Accountability Office to conduct a comprehensive study of the effects reducing compensation reimbursements would have on the department, its industrial base and contractor employees.”

Smart is not how the AFGE considers the committee’s decision to punt on this issue.

“Since 1998, the compensation cap on government contracts has more than doubled. Over the past dozen years, the increase in allowable government compensation to contractors has outpaced inflation by 53 percent,” said Beth Moten, the AFGE’s legislative and political director, noting that “at the same time, rank and file federal employees have had their [basic] pay frozen for more than two years, with only the prospect of a [half] percent pay increase next year. At a time when federal employees are making such immense sacrifices and DoD’s budget is so constrained, it is outrageous that the conferees chose not to ask the richest contractors to finally make modest sacrifices.”

The NDAA also contains increased protections for Defense and NASA contract employees who blow the whistle on waste, fraud and abuse. Also, it creates a four-year pilot program that extends protections to non-Defense contractors.

“We really didn’t need another pilot program to show how strong protections for whistleblowers make the government work better,” said Angela Canterbury, director of public policy for POGO, the nonpartisan Project on Government Oversight. “That said, it is encouraging to see Congress move to expand policies proven to increase accountability to taxpayers. . . . It’s just plain common sense to make it safe for anyone who witnesses waste, fraud, and abuse of taxpayer dollars to come forward.”

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) was a little more enthusiastic.

“Anyone sticking their necks out in order to protect taxpayers deserves protection against retaliation,” McCaskill said. “The bottom line is that these protections are a win for good government and taxpayers alike.”

Eric Yoder contributed to this report. Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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