Members of the House Government Reform Committee chewed over federal pay, political appointees and the civil service yesterday at a hearing focused on the recent Volcker commission report calling for a government-wide reorganization.

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), the committee chairman, used the Volcker commission report to signal that he plans to pursue fundamental changes to the civil service system.

"The last thing we want to do is let this die in the dust," Davis told Paul A. Volcker, chairman of the National Commission on the Public Service and a former chairman of the Federal Reserve System.

Rep. Jo Ann S. Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the Government Reform subcommittee on civil service and agency organization, agreed, saying, "I see the Volcker commission report as a guidepost for Congress as we begin our journey of reforming the federal government." She pledged to hold hearings this year on federal pay, hiring and other issues.

Democrats said no changes should be made that would undermine civil service protections for federal employees and expressed concern about Bush administration efforts to turn more federal work over to contractors. But they did not reject Volcker's argument that key parts of the government are operating with outmoded rules, pay inequities and poor systems for recruiting top-notch talent.

"Timing is everything, and it appears that now is the time to make constructive changes to the federal civil service and how it operates," said Rep. Danny K. Davis (Ill.), the ranking Democrat on the civil service subcommittee.

Last year, Congress launched the government on one of its biggest reorganizations -- the consolidation of 22 agencies into the Department of Homeland Security. That reorganization will allow the department to overhaul its pay and personnel rules. Other agencies also are proposing to modify pay and hiring procedures, including the Defense Department and NASA.

Volcker told the committee that his bipartisan group started out to recommend changes in the federal personnel system but quickly shifted to the larger issue of how to restructure the government into super-departments that would consolidate the government's operations based on mission, eliminate overlaps and help employees focus on improving federal services and programs.

Volcker was joined by Frank C. Carlucci, defense secretary in the Reagan administration, and Donna E. Shalala, health and human services secretary in the Clinton administration.

The trio testified in favor of giving the president expedited authority to recommend a government-wide reorganization that also would require Congress to quickly vote it up or down.

As part of the reorganization, the trio supported cutting back on political appointees, perhaps by as much as half.

They also suggested that Congress and the White House find a way to recommend significant pay raises for the judiciary and the Senior Executive Service, the top rank of the civil service.

Volcker said judicial pay has not kept pace with inflation; Shalala said federal science agencies have trouble recruiting professionals; and Carlucci noted that the Defense Department has trouble finding experts in technical fields, and that when it does, it usually recruits people on the verge of retirement.

Rep. Adam Putnam (R-Fla.) questioned Volcker's recommendation to immediately raise the pay of federal judges and top civil servants, saying it would create an "awkward situation" to pay them more than the "board of directors," or lawmakers. Putnam said he feared that paying judges more than lawmakers would make the judicial branch seem more important than the legislative branch.

Volcker contended that holding down judicial pay would "do basic damage" to the courts. Carlucci said he fears an "erosion of quality" in the government and courts if steps are not taken to raise salaries.

On the Radio

Delia Johnson, of the Office of Civil Rights at the International Broadcasting Bureau, will be the guest on "FEDtalk" at 11 a.m. today on federalnewsradio.com.

D. Cameron Findlay, Labor Department deputy secretary, will be the guest on "The Business of Government Hour" at 8 a.m. tomorrow on WJFK radio (106.7 FM).

"Homeland Security at Work" will be the topic for discussion on the Imagene B. Stewart call-in program at 8 a.m. Sunday on WOL radio (1450 AM).

Stephen Barr's e-mail address is

barrs@washpost.com.