The Office of Personnel Management has agreed to stop asking thousands of federal job applicants if they had ever joined communist organizations, advocacy groups, sought treatment for mental conditions or had used alcohol "to excess."
In response to pressure from civil liberties groups, federal worker organizations and members of Congress, the OPM has recommended that those questions be deleted from Standard Form 86, the job application form used by most agencies for "sensitive" federal jobs.
Individuals seeking positions "related to national security" outside the Defense Department will still have to complete the current form, but OPM has agreed to create what Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) described as a "new, less intrusive" form for "positions of public trust" that do not require access to classified information. Another form, SF-85, will be created for most government jobs, he said.
An OPM spokesman said the changes mean that only about 130,000 of the 1 million non-defense federal jobs will continue to be covered by the old form. Applicants for 170,000 senior policy positions, computer data jobs and law enforcement positions will be asked to complete the modified SF-86, and the remainder, about 70 percent of the non-defense work force, will use the new form without the questions.
The House Government Operations Committee, which Conyers chairs, had called for the revisions in a report published last month, arguing that the current form "unnecessarily invades the constitutional rights and personal privacy of hundreds of thousands of federal employees." The committee charged that some agencies were requiring messengers, GS-1 file clerks, mail handlers and others holding positions that are unrelated to national security to answer the questions in order to win their jobs.
The committee had called the questions about communist associations "an anachronism, unlikely to identify real threats to the government and an unnecessary retreat into the discredited loyalty-oath era."
It said the question about excessive alcohol use was "vague and ambiguous" and it expressed concern that the question on past mental treatments "would discourage employees from seeking psychological counseling in times of stress."
A requirement that applicants list "all U.S.-based organizations" except labor unions, religious or political groups to which they had belonged for the past 15 years has been challenged successfully in at least two employee lawsuits, the committee noted.
Conyers hailed OPM's decision, saying the agency was taking "substantial steps" to eliminate complaints over invasions of employee privacy. "But there is a long way to go," he said.
"We have to make certain that dedicated people who serve the public are not made to feel like they are under the eye of big brother," Conyers said in a statement. "You should not have to give up your constitutional rights to work for the federal government. . . . Sometimes it appears we still must fight the residue of our history during the McCarthy era."
OPM Director Constance B. Newman acknowledged through a spokesman that her agency, which conducts background investigations for most federal agencies, has endorsed the changes. "We have removed questions that were most intrusive," Newman said. "We feel we have changed the system to help avoid . . . problems of suitability, as well as security concerns," she said.
Sources familiar with the OPM proposal said that the changes are awaiting final approval from the Office of Management and Budget, but that no last-minute objections from the Bush administration were expected.
The OPM declined to eliminate questions about drug use from the job form, despite the House committee's expressed fears that such inquiries force job applicants to unconstitutionally incriminate themselves about past criminal activities. OPM has promised not to turn the answers to drug-use questions over to law enforcement officials, but Conyers noted that the agency lacks authority to grant an applicant immunity from prosecution. Without immunity, Conyers said the workers are unlikely to answer truthfully.
Newman noted that the OPM action followed court cases in which several judges had questioned the propriety of some of the questions on the SF-86.
The committee called the form "an unwieldy instrument for purposes of federal personnel management" and said workers who do not have access to classified information need only be asked questions designed to evaluate their trustworthiness and competency.