Tom Ridge, the president's choice to head the Department of Homeland Security, hopes to receive Senate confirmation this week -- perhaps as early as today -- and to be sworn in by Friday, the deadline for opening the new department.
Ridge will take office facing difficult issues such as funding, intelligence sharing, technology and coordination with localities and states on how to prevent terrorist attacks. Perhaps just as importantly, he continues to face scrutiny on civil service and union rights for the department's more than 190,000 employees.
The launch of the department, which involves the first major reorganization of the government since World War II, probably will offer important clues about how far Congress may go in reshaping what many of the civil service's critics say is an outdated system.
Defense Department officials have signaled that they are interested in revamping their civilian personnel system, and the Volcker commission recently recommended using the Homeland Security Department as a model for consolidating the rest of the government "into a limited number of mission-related executive departments" and to shake up civil service pay and hiring policies.
The legislation creating Homeland Security gives Ridge broad powers to overhaul or modify the way department employees are hired, promoted, paid and disciplined. A plan to revamp the workplace rules and policies for the new department will be outlined in midsummer, according to administration officials.
At Ridge's confirmation hearing before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee last week, Democrats reminded Ridge of the hard feelings that grew out of their losing battle over civil service and collective bargaining rights. Ridge, in turn, tried to reassure them that he recognizes that the department's success will hinge on the dedication and enthusiasm of the employees.
"The department should not be used as a vehicle to advance untried management initiatives nor erode the rights afforded to federal workers," Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii) told Ridge.
Homeland Security employees "deserve the right to collective bargaining, a fair grievance system, equitable pay and protection from retaliation for disclosing waste, fraud and abuse," Akaka said. "I urge you to ensure that federal employees actively participate in development of any new personnel management system adopted by the department."
Ridge responded that employees would play a role in creating the new system: "We will -- I will emphasize this again -- we will eagerly solicit and consider advice from the men and women who work in the new department, not only about professional matters, not only about the new human resources management system, but also about how to improve day-to-day operations that they're involved in and have been involved in professionally for years, if not decades."
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) told Ridge that he thought that Max Cleland (D-Ga.) lost his Senate seat in last year's elections because he had supported employee rights at Homeland Security.
"No one who stands up for the rights of collective bargaining should have their patriotism questioned, yet that happened in the last campaign relative to your new department," Durbin said.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) noted that the Transportation Security Administration, one of the 22 agencies involved in the reorganization, recently used its legislative authority to stop union organizing of airport passenger and baggage screeners. Specter said he thought such decisions, which must be based on national security considerations, should be made only by the president.
Ridge said the TSA had moved to stop unionization to have "the maximum flexibility possible to deploy" screeners without being hindered by collective bargaining rights. The union trying to organize TSA screeners -- the American Federation of Government Employees -- has filed a lawsuit challenging the ban.
The administration has promised that except in the TSA, Homeland Security employees and unions will retain existing rights and pay systems for at least a year. Ridge did not preview his plans for changing labor and personnel systems at last week's hearing, but he said many employee protections "are sacrosanct and not to be touched."
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Stephen Barr's e-mail address is email@example.com.