Bush administration officials said yesterday that they have devised a plan to shorten the processing time for security clearances, a longtime problem for thousands of federal employees and contract workers.

The plan to move faster on background checks and to reduce a backlog of pending cases was sent to Capitol Hill on Monday evening as part of a White House effort to meet goals laid out in the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act.

Under the plan, the Office of Personnel Management, which is in charge of background investigations for most of the government, intends to complete 80 percent of background checks within 90 days by the end of 2006. That would meet the intelligence law's requirements, said Linda M. Springer, the OPM director.

She and Clay Johnson III, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, testified before a Senate federal workforce subcommittee chaired by Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio). He was joined at yesterday's hearing by Sen. Daniel K. Akaka of Hawaii, the ranking Democrat on the panel.

Voinovich said federal employees and contract employees have been waiting an average of 274 days for background investigations to be completed -- a delay he called "unreasonable and unacceptable."

But processing time is only part of the problem, he added. About 232,000 clearances are backed up in the system, awaiting approval, a sign that "immediate improvements" are needed, Voinovich said.

Johnson and Springer testified they were confident that the administration's plan, which emphasizes interagency cooperation and the use of technology, would resolve key problems. Springer said OPM has been increasing, and will continue to increase, the staff responsible for clearing up the backlog and for keeping up with requests for background checks.

OPM has 1,800 federal employees and 6,600 contract workers, drawn from six companies, on board. OPM projects it will grow the background investigations staff to 9,000 by October 2009, although the estimate of federal employees on the staff will drop by about 500.

Asked by Akaka why fewer federal employees will be working on clearances four years from now, Springer said "the mix will evolve" as government employees retire and OPM turns to contractors to avert any staffing shortfalls.

One Court for Grievances?

Changes in the way federal employees are evaluated and paid have created a need for changes in the way they can challenge personnel actions, the House federal workforce subcommittee was told yesterday.

The panel is considering a proposal by the Senior Executives Association to create a single court that would handle equal employment opportunity complaints, whistle-blower retaliation complaints, labor grievances, appeals of discipline based on performance or conduct, and other types of appeals that now are spread among several appeals agencies.

The hearing came as the departments of Defense and Homeland Security seek to place greater weight to performance evaluations in pay and promotions, ideas that the Bush administration wants to apply government-wide.

William L. Bransford, general counsel for the SEA, which represents the interests of career federal executives, testified that such changes mean more pressure on federal managers who do the evaluations, with the potential for more appeals by workers unhappy with their ratings.

He argued that the current appeals system is too slow and complex, discouraging managers from taking performance-based actions against employees. "The simple threat of an EEO complaint by an unhappy subordinate, which can hang over a manager for three, four, five or even six years, gives even the best manager pause before deciding to take action against a problem employee," Bransford said.

Appeals rights have been part of the debate over revising personnel practices, with Defense and Homeland Security planning to shorten the process involved in appeals to the Merit System Protection Board and to give MSPB less leeway in overturning management decisions.

Subcommittee members and leaders of the major appeals agencies -- the MSPB, the Federal Labor Relations Authority and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission -- agreed that the system could stand improvement.

But no consensus was reached that a consolidation into one adjudicatory body might be the best solution.

Diary associate Eric Yoder contributed to this column.