A Senate hearing on civil service reform sounds like the snoozer it was.

It’s really too bad, though not surprising, that Wednesday’s session drew so little attention. What eventually emerges from Congress could affect the livelihood of millions of federal employees, their families and the way taxpayer money is spent.

The real pocketbook consequences of civil service reform were not evident by the poor attendance at the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs federal management subcommittee’s first hearing this session on the federal workforce.

The press table was empty, save a lone scribe. Few of the subcommittee members attended, though to be fair they often skip subcommittee hearings. The number of people in the audience section of the Dirksen Senate Office Building room was deceptive, populated mostly with student groups that shuffled in and out. Not many who really should care were there.

Meanwhile the few senators participating pondered questions that could lead to significant changes in the way federal employees are paid, rewarded, disciplined and classified. The hearing also demonstrated differing positions among feds toward the notion of pay for performance. A manager’s group likes it. A rank and file union hates it.

“Ensuring that agencies have processes in place to efficiently recruit, retain, compensate, train, and if necessary, dismiss problem federal employees is a difficult but essential task,” said committee Chairman James Lankford (R-Okla.), who offered heartfelt praise for feds. “And as the subcommittee with oversight over federal management, this task falls to us.”

It’s a big task and a potentially controversial one. It’s not a task anyone expects to be completed soon. Lankford said his panel is in the listening stage. He plans no legislation at this time. The lack of immediate action certainly contributes to the current lack of interest. But the discussions on civil service reform now lay the groundwork for what could come later.

Talk about government-wide civil service reform seems to be building, though Congress can take its time on a job of that magnitude. It might move more quickly if President Obama put some muscle behind his repeated calls for a Commission of Federal Public Service Reform. He hasn’t and that’s fine with federal unions and their Capitol Hill supporters who fear congressional tampering with the current system might make things worse.

Dan G. Blair, president and chief executive of the National Academy of Public Administration, suggested that Congress direct the Office of Personnel Management to conduct a series of demonstration projects on addressing poor employee performance, but added that “this would be a ripe subject for the next administration to explore.”

Congress isn’t waiting for the next administration to explore civil service reform at the Department of Veterans Affairs. In what amounts to a demonstration project involving VA employees, a law passed last year by Congress sharply undercut workplace protections for VA senior executives who want to appeal disciplinary measures. That’s just one of several moves affecting VA employees led by House VA committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.). On Thursday, his committee approved a bill that would punish supervisors who retaliate against whistleblowers.

Though the VA bills deal only with that department, they show a willingness by Congress to upset current civil service operations. And what Congress approves does not always meet employee approval. The Senior Executives Association said Miller’s bill, signed in August by Obama, makes “a sham” of due process rights for the top-level VA civil servants.

That kind of controversy is just waiting to explode – again – over pay for performance.

“The current system promotes a workforce based on longevity rather than performance,” said Patricia Niehaus, president of the Federal Managers Association. “The highest performing employees should be rewarded with the highest rates of pay. Those employees who fall below the curve in terms of overall performance should not be rewarded at the same level.”

The current system, the General Schedule (GS), was strongly defended by American Federation of Government Employees President J. David Cox Sr. in his statement to the subcommittee. The discretion that managers  in a pay-for-performance system have allows for discrimination based on factors such as race and gender, Cox said.

Indeed, the now-abandoned National Security Personnel System for civilian Defense employees, a discredited pay-for-performance system, was the target of discrimination complaints and a 2008 Federal Times analysis that showed higher ratings, pay and bonuses for white staffers than other employees.

“A modern pay system cannot discriminate against women, minorities, ethnic backgrounds or disability,” Cox said. “Not only is this intolerable morally, but it does not get the best and the brightest people hired, promoted, recognized and rewarded. Tried and true, the GS system is as close to color, crony and gender blind as it gets.”

But will that save it? Stay tuned.