The White House, which is on a mission to subject more government jobs to competition from the private sector, soon may have to limit its efforts to federal agencies other than the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
A provision in the Senate's version of the omnibus spending bill would exempt the Corps from any privatization of the agency's 35,000 positions as part of President Bush's competitive sourcing initiative. Bush believes that allowing private contractors to bid for work that does not necessarily have to be done by government employees spurs efficiency and lowers costs whether the jobs stay in-house or not.
But if the language is adopted by House and Senate negotiators, who hope to wrap up the bill soon, then no federal money "shall be used to study or implement any plans privatizing, divesting or transferring" any of the Corps' civil works duties.
Longtime critics of the Corps say the provision is just the most recent example of Congress's unwillingness to pursue reform in a "privileged" agency that carries out civil works projects -- flood control, waterways management and military construction -- that mean money and jobs for the folks back home.
"It's to protect the Corps as the ladler of pork," said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a Washington-based environmental group. "The motivation is [to protect] the one agency they feel closest to. . . . It's about protecting turf."
Administration officials aren't crazy about the language either.
"The administration strongly opposes this provision," said Trent Duffy, a spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget. "It's directly counter to the president's competitive sourcing initiative."
Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), who heads the panel's subcommittee on energy and water development, did not respond to calls seeking comment.
Gene Pawlik, a spokesman for the Corps, declined to comment. "We never comment on proposed or pending legislation," he said.
Bush wants companies to be able to bid for as many as 850,000 government jobs that are considered commercial in nature, ranging from janitorial services to computer network design. Agencies must "compete" 50 percent of such jobs, or 425,000 positions, over the next few years to earn OMB's top management rating.
The Corps, with a proposed 2004 civil works budget of $4.2 billion, is an agency that would seem to be ripe for contracting out. Many Corps projects, such as constructing flood control levees, are civilian in nature. And much of the actual work is already done by private contractors. The Corps' civil works division functions largely as a project manager, employing engineers, architects, biologists, regulatory analysts and others who conduct studies, design plans and oversee construction.
A Corps study last year identified over 20,000 jobs that could be considered for contracting out.
"Most of the work of the Corps is performing commercial functions," said an OMB official. Exempting the largely white-collar workers there from competition, the official said, would feed "the continuing perception that competitive sourcing adversely affects folks that are doing blue-collar work."
Bruce D'Agostino, executive director of the Construction Management Association of America, an industry group, said that while the Corps has an important mission, "we don't feel that any government agency should be competing with the private sector."
Bobby L. Harnage Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which has been critical of Bush's privatization efforts, said that walling off Corps jobs simply means the administration will find another place to meet its outsourcing "quotas."
Other groups of workers are seeking similar protections. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) plans to introduce legislation this week that would declare most air traffic control jobs "inherently governmental," prohibiting the administration from putting them out for bid.