New Personnel System Hits Another Snag

By Stephen Barr
Tuesday, August 7, 2007

The Defense Department's new civilian personnel system is hitting red lights on Capitol Hill.

In the hours before recessing for its August break, the House approved an amendment that would deny funding for key parts of the National Security Personnel System, which has been heralded by the Bush administration as a model for overhauling how federal employees are paid, promoted and disciplined.

The amendment was added on a voice vote to the fiscal 2008 spending bill for the Defense Department. There was little discussion, and no House member spoke up for the new system.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a sponsor of the amendment to deny the funding, said in a telephone interview that "our concern is that the Defense Department has not implemented the law consistent with congressional intent."

The amendment was offered by Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) on behalf of himself, Van Hollen and Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.) late Saturday night. They have cited concerns that the new system is not fair to employees and unions because it makes access to independent third parties to help resolve workplace disputes more difficult.

The appropriations bill is the third effort underway in Congress to rein in the National Security Personnel System. The House Armed Services Committee has approved an authorization bill that the White House called "in essence a total revocation" of the new system. The Senate Armed Services Committee's version of the bill would ensure full bargaining rights for unions and would exempt blue-collar employees at Defense from the NSPS.

Almost four years ago, Congress approved the creation of the NSPS at the request of the Bush administration. Bush appointees had hoped the new Defense personnel system and a similar system planned for the Department of Homeland Security would lead to the biggest shake-up in federal personnel policies since 1978, when the current civil service system was established.

The NSPS, if put in place as envisioned, would convert almost all Defense civilians from the General Schedule, which officials contend rewards length of service, to a performance-based system that would more rigorously link raises to job ratings.

The changes would allow the Pentagon to better reward its best workers, officials have said. The system, which is being phased in, covers about 114,000 nonunion employees. If completed as planned, nearly 700,000 Defense Department employees would convert to the system.

But the regulations issued to implement the personnel system drew quick opposition from a coalition of federal unions, which accused the department of trying to gut their rights. The unions filed a federal lawsuit to stop parts of the NSPS, and the dispute remains in court.

The House funding prohibition mirrors much of what the unions are seeking in court. It would prevent the Pentagon from waiving or modifying key sections of civil service law used to create the NSPS in the areas of performance appraisals, discipline, employees' right to appeal decisions and labor-management relations.

A Defense official familiar with the NSPS, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about pending legislation, said the House funding ban would probably impede other personnel programs at Defense, and not just the NSPS. The other programs use alternative methods for evaluating the performance of employees, and the House proposal would call those into question, too, he said.

The House approved a similar funding ban last year, but a compromise was brokered that permitted the Pentagon to continue phasing in new methods for setting pay and evaluating job performance.

Labor leaders lobbied for the spending ban again, primarily because they were worried that a defense authorization bill with NSPS restrictions might not pass or win the president's approval this year because of unrelated disputes, such as the Iraq war.

"That made it all the more important for Congress to strip funding for NSPS," said Richard N. Brown, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees.

The Senate has not written its defense appropriations bill, and unions yesterday called on the Senate to back the House prohibition. Two union leaders expressed confidence that organized labor will carry the day in Congress.

"We are hopeful that this is the beginning of the end," said Ron Ault, president of the AFL-CIO's Metal Trades Department. John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said, "We have no doubt that in the end, DOD employees will be treated fairly and in a just manner."

Stephen Barr's e-mail address isbarrs@washpost.com.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company