The House yesterday moved closer to passing a major spending bill that provides a 3.5 percent pay raise for civilian federal employees and prevents the Bush administration from proceeding with controversial rules encouraging competition between private contractors and federal workers for government jobs.
In a setback to the administration, the House voted 210 to 187 for an amendment by Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) setting aside the contracting rules issued last year. Twenty-four Republicans joined 185 Democrats and an independent in voting for the amendment, which is attached to an $89.6 billion bill funding the Transportation and Treasury departments in fiscal 2005.
Administration officials contend the rules are merely intended to make government more efficient. But federal employee unions and Republican and Democratic lawmakers with sizable numbers of federal constituents have argued that the rules are tilted to the advantage of the private sector.
"We're not trying to throw out competitive sourcing, we're trying to make the rules fair," Van Hollen said.
Van Hollen said the Bush administration contracting rules issued last year did away with a previous requirement that outside contractors demonstrate that they can save the government either 10 percent of its present costs, or $10 million, by transferring services now performed by federal job holders.
Yesterday's vote, he said, was aimed at bringing the administration back to the bargaining table to make further changes sought by federal workers.
The Senate Appropriations Committee has added a similar provision blocking the new rules to its version of the spending bill. The full Senate is yet to take up that measure.
To some extent, the bipartisan support in the House reflects the far-flung nature of today's federal establishment, with agencies and branch offices in most congressional districts dealing with various programs and services, from federal law enforcement and immigration to counterterrorism, agricultural extension services, housing programs and veterans health care.
"Our nation is able to deploy our air, sea and land fleets safely and swiftly thanks to the muscle and logistical support of both federal civilian employees and military employees, so it is appropriate to provide them with equal pay," Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said in a recent statement.
After declining from 2 million to 1.7 million during President Bill Clinton's administration, the government's civilian workforce has risen slightly despite new Bush administration contracting rules aimed at encouraging the private sector to compete for jobs performed by federal employees.
The House's action yesterday, along with strong support for a 3.5 percent pay raise for 1.8 million civilian workers, was a vivid contrast to the anti-government rhetoric often heard in the GOP-controlled House.
The Bush administration had proposed increasing the pay of nonmilitary government workers by only 1.5 percent for fiscal 2005. But the House Appropriations Committee voted 42 to 16 for an amendment offered by Washington area lawmakers giving federal employees the same 3.5 percent raise as the uniformed military.
The nonmilitary payroll is expected to be about $140 billion in 2005.
John Threlkeld, legislative representative for the American Federation of Government Employees, said the contracting rules "are manifestly unfair."
He said many federal employees fear the administration has set "covert quotas" for transferring federal jobs to the private sector, and "feel under pressure" from the White House budget office.
But lawmakers and labor groups acknowledge that it is difficult to pinpoint how many federal jobs have actually been lost because of the new policy. Threlkeld said federal workers have won the majority of job competitions so far.
The underlying Transportation-Treasury bill includes $58.8 billion for the Transportation Department, $11.22 billion for the Treasury Department, along with funds for the White House, the Federal Aviation Administration and other agencies.
In the Senate, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a $101 billion bill funding space, environmental, housing and veterans programs, after adding $800 million for repairs to the space shuttle and a mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope.