Thirty-five Senate Democrats said yesterday that they are afraid federal employees would not get a fair shake as the Bush administration considers moving hundreds of thousands of government jobs to the private sector.
The lawmakers, led by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), said the administration's outsourcing effort, known as the competitive sourcing initiative, would favor contractors, limit federal workers' ability to compete for jobs, hobble federal agencies and raise questions about accountability -- all without necessarily saving money.
"We have deep reservations about privatizing so much of the federal workforce," the senators said in a letter to Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., director of the Office of Management and Budget, "especially in the absence of a reliable and comprehensive process to determine the cost, quality and scope of the tens of billions of dollars of work already performed by private contractors."
The senators urged Daniels to develop ways to track the cost and quality of contracted work and to ensure that federal workers get a fair chance to compete for their jobs and work already being done by contractors. They also asked the OMB to ensure that displaced federal workers receive fair wages and benefits.
OMB officials did not respond to requests for comment yesterday but have defended the effort as a way to increase government efficiency through competition.
The senators' criticism echoes that of federal employee unions, which have said that administration officials merely pay lip service to competition. Bobby L. Harnage Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees, vowed to line up congressional allies to "challenge the Bush administration's attempt to use privatization to pay off its contractor cronies with taxpayer dollars."
Other senators who signed the letter include Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.), Robert C. Byrd (W. Va.), Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), Barbara A. Mikulski (Md.) and Paul S. Sarbanes (Md.). The letter comes at a time when the Bush administration is considering regulatory revisions that would speed up the way agencies determine whether to contract out work.
President Bush has said agencies should compete with companies for as many as 850,000 government jobs that are considered commercial in nature, ranging from janitorial services to computer network design. The administration contends that competition makes agencies operate in a more businesslike manner, while turning over work better handled by the private sector. Agencies must "compete out" 50 percent of the commercial jobs, or 425,000 positions, over the next few years to earn the top rating on the OMB's annual management scorecard. The competitions can be won by the federal agencies.
Of the five major initiatives on the president's management agenda, competitive sourcing "has registered the least progress so far," according to Bush's 2004 budget released on Monday. No agency "has opened up a sufficient number of commercial activities to competition," the budget says.
Angela B. Styles, the OMB's administrator for federal procurement policy, said last week that 7 percent to 10 percent of the government's commercial jobs were either in competition or under review. She acknowledged in a recent interview that the administration probably won't reach its goal of putting 15 percent of such jobs up for competition by October.
However, Styles said, proposed revisions to "Circular A-76," the regulations that govern outsourcing, should speed up the process when they become final in a few weeks. "You are going to see the larger competitions, with more employees involved, coming up very quickly," she said.
Among other changes, the proposed revisions would shorten competitions to as little as 12 months, from two to four years. Business groups have hailed the changes as sensible and overdue. Many agencies, however, have said the revised process is too onerous and doesn't offer a way to measure cost savings. Styles said Bush officials will take such criticisms into account.