- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 20, 2002

Congressional Democrats and their labor allies yesterday threatened to kill a key component of President Bush's homeland security plan the executive authority to remove civil-service protections from some federal employees.
"I will oppose that vigorously," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat. "It is simply using Americans' and Congress' justifiable support of ensuring our security as a ruse to do the agenda that I think this administration has, to undermine the rights of workers in the federal government."
The White House is proposing to merge dozens of agencies with about 160,000 employees into the new Department of Homeland Security. About one-third of those are civil-service workers, with job protections that make them notoriously difficult to fire.
Because of the sensitive nature of some of the homeland security jobs, the Bush administration wants the new Cabinet secretary to have the flexibility to waive civil-service protections for some employees.
"It is critical that the new secretary have the flexibility he needs to be able to respond to the threat," said Rep. Rob Portman, Ohio Republican and a member of the new House Select Committee on Homeland Security. "The task is too important."
But the resulting protest from unions and their supporters in Congress is emerging as one of the most serious threats to the anti-terrorism plan and presents a political problem for Mr. Bush, who has been aggressively courting support from unions such as the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
"This proposal appears to be an attempt to punish and blame rank-and-file federal employees for the security lapses that made our nation vulnerable to the September 11 attack," said Bobby Harnage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees. "This blame is mislaid, and the punishment unwarranted."
Several lawmakers, including Sens. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, and John McCain, Arizona Republican, raised the issue last week in a closed briefing with Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge.
Mr. Kennedy will chair a hearing today of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee to examine "how workers could be hindered in forming unions under the President's new Department of Homeland Security proposal," according to a committee news release.
Mr. Ridge has said he will be meeting with labor leaders to reassure them that the new department will respect collective-bargaining rights. But he did not indicate that he would back away from the occasional need to waive civil-service protections, which his office said the president could do for national security purposes.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said, "You certainly need flexibility when it comes to defending the homeland. That's a lot more important than complying with the current civil-service rules, whatever they are."
Mr. Hoyer, ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations subcommittee on general government operations, said the proposal is part of an anti-union pattern at the White House.
"This administration, first at the Justice Department, then at the Transportation Security Agency, now in this 160,000 employees they want to put in the Department of Homeland Security, what they want to do is to remove from these employees the protections that now exist by law," Mr. Hoyer said.
Yesterday, Mr. Bush received enthusiastic union support when he spoke to the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America about the need for a terrorism insurance bill limiting punitive damages in lawsuits.
"They've got to make sure this bill doesn't open up all kind of lawsuits," Mr. Bush said. "What we're interested in is job creation, not lawsuit creation. We've got plenty of lawsuits all around America as it is."
His audience, a strong backer of the Democratic Party, applauded.
Democratic lawmakers in the Washington area, who represent many federal employees, are among the most outspoken opponents of the proposed civil-service waiver. Rep. James P. Moran, Virginia Democrat, called the plan "deeply troubling."
"Just because career federal workers are being shifted to a new department under this restructuring does not mean that they should go without their civil-service protections," Mr. Moran said. "Throughout this debate about the new department, I will fight to ensure that federal employees, who have dedicated their lives to public service, do not lose the civil-service protections they so rightly deserve."
As the House approved the homeland security committee yesterday, some lawmakers urged their colleagues not to become sidetracked with such disputes.
"Let's not forget what this is all about," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, California Republican. "Three thousand of our citizens were slaughtered by a hostile foreign enemy.
"We are at war. The defense of the homeland is about winning that war. What is necessary for victory is a unity, not just between the executive and legislative branch, but also between the political parties."
Mr. Portman said the same civil-service waiver was a crucial tool in restructuring the Internal Revenue Service a few years ago.
"We did give the [IRS] commissioner flexibility that he has used to the maximum to be able to hire and retain the best people and to be able to improve performance through bonuses and promotions that would not have been permitted under pre-existing rules," Mr. Portman said. "So I've seen it work. I want to be absolutely sure that we protect the collective-bargaining rights, but at the same time we give the secretary the flexibility he needs. I think we'll be able to work it through."
Mr. Harnage said in a statement, "This bill has the potential to allow the new Department to engage in personnel actions that are today illegal, such as picking out individual employees for transfer or removal from their jobs. In opening the door to hiring and firing on the basis of politics and favoritism, the legislation would impose a modern day 'spoils system,' undermining the nation's long-standing civil service principles that ensure the integrity of our government."


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