Federal agencies would be able to give generous recruitment and retention bonuses when trying to hire and keep employees under legislation approved by the House.

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) called the bill, which also provides federal employees with time off for travel during off-duty hours, "a momentous step toward effectively reforming the federal civil service system." Agencies will be able to "build a strong workforce" by using bonuses "in a more strategic manner," Davis said.

The bill, probably the only legislation calling for changes in federal employment policy that will pass Congress this year, was approved on a voice vote Wednesday. The bill goes to the Senate, which approved a different version in the spring.

Under the House bill, agencies could pay bonuses of up to 25 percent of an employee's annual pay for up to four consecutive years. In cases in which an employee meets a "critical agency need," the Office of Personnel Management could authorize a bonus of up to 100 percent of base pay, at the time of the recruitment, if the applicant agreed to work for at least two years.

To retain employees, agencies could pay bonuses up to 25 percent of base pay. To retain groups of employees, agencies could give bonuses worth 10 percent of annual pay. In cases in which agencies believed they need to pay even more to keep employees from leaving, the bonuses could be increased to up to 50 percent of base pay in a given year.

Employees given recruitment and retention bonuses would agree to remain in federal service for a specified period, usually no longer than four years. The bonuses would not be counted as part of base pay, which is used to calculate retirement benefits, and would not be available to political appointees. They could be paid in installments or in lump sums.

The legislation effectively waives current limits, which hold bonuses to 25 percent of base pay.

During debate on the bill, Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.) noted that the bill would require the Office of Personnel Management to report the number of bonuses being paid so that Congress will have information available to evaluate their effectiveness in hiring and keeping federal employees.

The legislation also would allow federal employees who travel on their own time -- such as spending Sunday on an airplane to attend a Monday morning meeting -- to claim compensatory time off. Current rules make it difficult for employees to qualify for pay while traveling outside duty hours.

The House bill dropped some provisions contained in an earlier version, primarily because of budgetary considerations, Davis said. Among the dropped provisions was a proposal to correct inequities in pension calculations for part-time work covered under the Civil Service Retirement System.

Protecting the Disabled

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) introduced legislation yesterday that would protect federal employees with severe disabilities from losing their government jobs as a result of contracting out.

The legislation was prompted by Van Hollen's discovery last year that the Bush administration was considering whether a contractor should take over the jobs performed by 21 mentally disabled employees in the hospital scullery at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda. Van Hollen protested the idea and, he said, the administration withdrew plans to put the jobs up for bid.

"We thought it important to make sure that kind of thing can't happen anywhere in the country where the federal government has put in place special programs for individuals with severe disability," Van Hollen said.

In a letter to House colleagues, Van Hollen said his bill has the support of the Consortium for Citizens With Disabilities and the Professional Services Council, which represents government contractors.

Talk Shows

James Little, administrator of the Farm Service Agency, and Steve Sanders, associate director of the agency's information technology services division, will be the guests on "The Business of Government Hour" at 9 a.m. tomorrow on WJFK radio (106.7 FM).

"Early Out -- A Retiree's Guide to the Welfare Line?" will be the topic for discussion on the Imagene B. Stewart call-in program at 8 a.m. Sunday on WOL radio (1450 AM).

E-mail: barrs@washpost.com