Joe Davidson
Joe Davidson

Foes find common ground in opposing defense workforce cuts

A Defense Department funding bill has made bedfellows of two groups more likely to be found in opposite corners — federal labor and federal contractors.

The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) and the Professional Services Council (PSC) object to Section 341 of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2013. The Senate approved it Tuesday.

Joe Davidson

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. Davidson previously was an assistant city editor at The Washington Post and a Washington and foreign correspondent with The Wall Street Journal, where he covered federal agencies and political campaigns.


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They are not alone in opposition to the measure that would require the Pentagon to cut more than $5 billion in planned spending for its civilian and contractor workforces through fiscal 2017. The White House and the Pentagon also say it’s a bad idea.

“I have been working on federal employee issues for 29 years, and I can’t think of any other instance when AFGE, the Department of Defense, the White House and PSC have taken the same position on a significant sourcing/workforce management issue,” said Beth Moten, the union’s legislative and political director.

Alan Chvotkin, PSC’s executive vice president and counsel, said his organization and AFGE agree that the bill would infringe on the flexibility that administration and Pentagon leaders need to manage department resources.

“PSC opposes the imposition of arbitrary reductions in the civilian and contractor workforces in Section 341 and believes that requiring DoD to make equal cuts across its blended workforce deprives the department of the ability to make strategic decisions about how to best meet its mission needs,” said a Nov. 19 letter to Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) from Stan Soloway, PSC president and chief executive.

Labor and contractors have Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to thank for their kumbaya moment.

He authored the amendment that AFGE estimates would cut 36,000 positions from the workforce.

“The McCain cuts are sequestration — arbitrary cuts in funding for the defense industrial base, which virtually everyone regards as idiotic — but far more likely to occur than the real sequestration,” Moten said in an e-mail.

Virtually everyone does not include McCain.

“This was unanimously approved by the committee. There is a provision in there that would simply require the department to plan to reduce funding for civilian and contractor personnel by approximately 5 percent, which would be less reduction than what is contemplated from the military side,” McCain said on the Senate floor. “Look, we all know that the Department of Defense is being downsized, so there has to be, obviously, a commensurate reduction in civilians.”

Not so, said Cardin.

“I think this is wrong policy,” he said in an interview. “The policy on our contractual and our civilian workforce is based upon mission and budget” and not on a tit-for-tat equivalency with the uniformed troops.

Even if workforce and contractor expenditures are within budget, the McCain amendment would force cuts “unrelated to mission and need, which to me makes no sense at all,” Cardin added. His amendment to stop the cuts failed.

AFGE and PSC hope that the McCain cuts will be knocked out before they become law. The House version of the authorization bill does not include the personnel reduction, so the two chambers will have to work out their differences in a conference committee.

House Democrats probably will oppose the McCain provision. “Arbitrarily reducing contractors and federal civilians is not an appropriate way to run an effective government,” said Michael J. Amato, communications director of the House Armed Services Committee’s Democrats. Committee Republicans had no comment on the Senate provision.

Whatever the outcome, the alliance between federal labor leaders and contractors is not going to stay warm and cozy. Another section of the defense authorization bill has them at odds.

To the cheers of labor, the bill would cap federal contractor salary reimbursements at $230,700, instead of the current $763,029.

“[T]axpayers should not fund exorbitant government reimbursements for exorbitant private contractor salaries,” Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said in a statement.

In October, the PSC’s Soloway said that the cap “would deprive the government of access to critical skills, such as those currently in high demand to defend government networks from cyber intrusions.”

On Tuesday, Chvotkin said that the “PSC is and has consistently opposed misguided efforts to impose arbitrary limitation on salaries, whether for federal employees or for contractors.”

He seemed to relish the common ground that the contractors and labor found in opposition to McCain’s cuts. It was “one of those rare opportunities,” he said.

But as the contractor pay cap demonstrates, Chvotkin added: “There’s always enough to divide us.”

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