The Army's proposal to contract out as many as 214,000 military and civilian jobs could pose a threat to national security, a group of 68 House members warned yesterday.
The lawmakers, including four Republicans, sent a letter to Army Secretary Thomas E. White yesterday criticizing his Oct. 4 decision to review the jobs of 58,727 military personnel and 154,910 civilian employees to see whether they could be performed better and more cheaply by the private sector. The affected workers perform such support functions as accounting, legal counsel, maintenance and communications.
"We're greatly concerned by your decision," the House members wrote, saying that the transfer of such jobs to the private sector has "the potential of seriously eroding the readiness of the total force at a time when the nation is facing a determined security threat."
An Army spokesman declined to comment on the letter, saying any response would be directed to the members of Congress.
The Army's initiative, which White has said would focus more of the military's resources on national defense, could affect more than one in six Army jobs around the world and follows two earlier waves of privatization over the past 20 years.
If the Army succeeds in contracting out the work, it will be the largest transfer of jobs to the private sector by a government agency. It could also provide a major boost to the Bush administration's broader effort to move as many as 425,000 government jobs considered not "inherently governmental" into the private sector in the name of saving money and increasing efficiency.
The House members wrote that the Army initiative is "especially inappropriate" because it appears to be based on a "numerical privatization quota" of the sort that the House explicitly disapproved of in a vote in July. They said a competitive process must govern whether any Army jobs move to the private sector, and urged that White consult with Congress before moving forward.
Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee who circulated the letter, said in an interview that the Defense Department was too focused on cutting costs when the country is fighting terrorism and facing a possible war with Iraq.
"They're looking at the bottom line . . . without regard to the impact that it would have on our national security if we continue on this binge to privatize," said Reyes, whose El Paso-area district includes the Army's Fort Bliss. "As far as I'm concerned, we're down to the bone. Now you are cutting into the meat; you are eliminating jobs that are critical."
Rep. Walter B. Jones Jr. (R-N.C.), also a member of the armed services panel, said the drive toward privatization could affect key functions at Army depots and other facilities.
"There are some situations where [the] public and private sectors can [have a] partnership, but all in all, when you are trying to decrease, in my opinion, the strength of the public depots, I think you are making a mistake," said Jones, whose district includes the Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point.
Both lawmakers said they would support congressional hearings on the Army initiative.
White has said the Army must focus its resources on core national defense duties that it can do better than anyone else, while obtaining other products and services from the private sector. Military personnel whose jobs are affected would be reassigned to other duties within the Army. Federal unions have denounced the plan as an attempt to benefit defense contractors.
White had set yesterday as a deadline for determining which Army jobs would not be subject to the review. But officials pushed it to Feb. 20 after receiving thousands of requests from Army managers seeking exemptions for various jobs.
Office of Management and Budget officials announced last month that they would speed up the process for determining whether government jobs should be done by the public or private sector.
"It's not an initiative to outsource federal employees," Angela Styles, OMB administrator for federal procurement policy, said at the time. "It's an initiative about competition, about deciding who is the best provider of these services and who can give us the best value for our taxpayers."