Striking the right balance between security and liberty is an age-old struggle in democracies. In the United States, federal employees are caught in the middle.

The latest round in the tussle played out Wednesday at a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee hearing that examined security clearances and a workforce designation that critics say could strip thousands of federal employees of their rights without enhancing national security.

Front and center at the hearing were the cases of two low-level Defense Department workers who had no access to classified information and did not hold security clearances. Nonetheless, their positions were designated as “national security sensitive.” Rhonda Conyers was a Defense Department accounting technician and Devon Northover was a grocery clerk on a military base when both found themselves in debt because of divorce or a death in the family.

The government considers debt a threat to those who guard the nation’s secrets; in theory, they are more susceptible to bribes. But Conyers and Northover knew no secrets. Yet she was fired and he was demoted, testified David A. Borer, general counsel of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents them. They were prevented from appealing those personnel actions to the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) because of their national security sensitive classifications.

Federal workforce subcommittee Chairman Jon Tester (D-Mont.) had trouble understanding the government’s logic behind penalizing employees who are in debt, but who know no secrets.

Brian Prioletti of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and Tim Curry of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) were not able to answer all of the chairman’s questions specifically.

They cited government regulations and a lawsuit in the Conyers case that prevented them from going into detail on individual personnel matters. Tester didn’t seem satisfied.

“It totally escapes me,” he said, referring to “how a grocery store clerk could be put at the same level” as a CIA officer, and how workers without security clearances could be in national security sensitive slots and then be fired over debts with no appeal rights.

“Does this make sense to you guys?” he asked.

Aides sitting behind the officials scribbled information on a steady stream of note cards to the OPM and ODNI men.

“Hypothetically,” Prioletti said, “if you have access to a food supply you could in fact have an adverse affect on national security.”

Perhaps a minimum-wage cafeteria worker in the Pentagon could attempt to poison the soup. But Prioletti’s example helped make the point pushed by union leaders and whistleblower advocates that the government’s solution could result in the widespread revocation of employee rights for workers with no access to classified information.

“Indeed, national security claims threaten to engulf our government,” Angela Canterbury, director of public policy at the Project on Government Oversight, told the panel.

She urged support of legislation proposed by D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) that would allow MSPB appeals by employees in positions that do not require a security clearance or access to classified information. Tester and other senators are sponsoring a bill that would provide greater oversight of the security clearance process.

The OPM and ODNI have proposed regulations designed to clarify the classification of national security positions. Canterbury and Borer say the proposal is too broad, provides too little oversight and could exacerbate the problem of having too many employees with the sensitive designation.

Curry’s response: “The proposed rule is not intended to increase or decrease the number of positions designated as national security sensitive, but is intended to provide more specific guidance to agencies.”

Tester and Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio), the top Republican on the subcommittee, have asked the administration to postpone finalizing its regulation, because, as a letter from the senators says, “far too many questions remain unanswered.”

The hearing was part of an ongoing examination by Congress and the Obama administration of security clearance issues after the September killing of 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard by Aaron Alexis, a Defense Department contractor. That was preceded this year by the release of a continuing flow of secret information from Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor. Both men had security clearances.

“From the significant disclosures of classified information to the tragedy at the Washington Navy Yard,” Tester said, “it is abundantly clear to the American people that the federal government is failing to properly vet the individuals who are granted access to our nation’s most sensitive information and secure facilities.”

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP