By Joe Davidson
Tuesday, May 25, 2010; B03
Are the lives of Defense Department civilians worth more than the lives of other federal workers?
That question is being raised by members of Congress who doubt the need for extraordinary building security standards for Defense workers who are not on military bases and who are not engaged in sensitive operations.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said she is "concerned that the application of two disparate security standards will give rise to two distinctly different classes of civilian, federal employees who do similar office work: DOD employees and all others."
The issue is relevant because the General Services Administration is seeking congressional approval to secure 750,000 square feet of space in Northern Virginia for the department's Medical Headquarters Command. Since it would house DOD functions, the location must conform to more stringent security standards than those for other federal agencies.
For example, the building should be 148 feet from the street, rather than the 50 feet that, Norton said, was the rule for non-Defense facilities until it recently was made more flexible. Also, no basement parking is allowed under DOD buildings. Norton chaired a House Transportation and Infrastructure public buildings subcommittee hearing on the topic last week.
While some Defense operations may be on a terrorist hit list, it was the Internal Revenue Service that was a recent target of domestic terrorism. An angry taxpayer flew his plane into an Austin building housing IRS offices in February. Even the Defense standards would not have protected that facility from an air attack.
"There really shouldn't be a double standard," said Ronald J. Carbonneau, a National Treasury Employees Union chapter president whose office is in an IRS facility in Andover, Mass. "It doesn't make sense."
The higher standards also cost more and make it less likely that facilities can be in urban areas or near Metro stations.
"So the question is: Are these DOD employees and other DOD employees like them who are performing office-type work entitled to levels of protection that are clearly more stringent, and appreciably more costly, than what the government is applying for other federal employees," Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.), the full committee chairman, said in a statement to Norton's panel.
The Pentagon and GSA officials at the hearing did not answer that question directly. But Samuel Morris, a GSA assistant commissioner, acknowledged that complying with the DOD requirements "does pose a burden on trying to find adequate space." Furthermore, a requirement that buildings be near public transportation "had to be relaxed" for the medical command, he said.
Morris told the panel that when it comes to Defense operations, no matter what their function, "every facility is regarded as a military installation, needing the same level of security and protection and must be compliant with DOD anti-terrorism standards."
This follows a decision by Defense officials that "DOD personnel in leased facilities should be given the same protection as those in DOD-owned buildings," said Michael McAndrew, the Pentagon's director of facility investment and management.
As DOD developed the standards, "it understood that many existing leased properties, many of which are located in the Washington, D.C., area, would not meet the DOD anti-terrorism standards," he said.
That, of course, does not please members of Congress from the Washington area. Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) called the DOD standards "costly" and "irrational." In district's like his, no one can afford to set aside the amount of land the Defense Department requires for setbacks. He said the standards take full effect in 2014.
"You're wasting very valuable land," he said. "As a result, the taxpayer is having to pay a very high premium to house Department of Defense employees."
Although Pentagon officials think their employees need greater levels of protection than other workers, there is a loophole in the standards that could lead to the assumption that all federal employees really are created equal. A building does not have to meet DOD requirements if less than 25 percent of its occupants are DOD workers.
That leads the Pentagon to place the workers who would make that ratio exceed 25 percent in another building, Moran said, "which doesn't make sense," particularly as Defense tries to consolidate.
Norton agreed. "I am certain," she said, "that Congress never intended auditors and accountants . . . and other non-secure paper pushers to have setbacks that would quadruple the cost of their housing."Telework bill advances
The Senate unanimously passed legislation Monday that would make it easier for teleworking. The Telework Enhancement Act, sponsored by Sens. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii) and George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio), would require agencies to designate a telework managing officer and make telework part of their continuity of operations planning. A similar bill failed in the House but could be reconsidered.