- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 22, 2003

The Bush administration is backing a Defense Department funding bill that would reduce union influence over the Pentagon’s civilian employees.

The House bill, which allots $400 billion to the military next year, gives the secretary of defense greater latitude in structuring his department. It would give managers more freedom in hiring, firing and promoting, and it replaces automatic pay raises with a process based on performance.

House Democrats and the workers’ union say the provisions remove employees’ most basic protections.

“The Department of Defense has found a golden opportunity in the war on terror to try to jam through Congress” a bill that rolls back employment protections and exempts the Pentagon from certain environmental laws, said Rep. John D. Dingell, Michigan Democrat. “After defeating Saddam Hussein, the Department of Defense is turning its guns on the most deadly and dangerous foes it has yet confronted: the bald eagle and Flipper the dolphin.”

Republicans say they simply want to modernize the Pentagon’s civilian work force.

“No one is trying to bust any union or anything else,” House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican, said this week. “We are trying to work with the unions and others to say: ‘Look, let us bring everybody together that has come into the modern era and let us start looking at common-sense solutions to what in many cases been a failed system.’”

Sen. John W. Warner, Virginia Republican, indicated Tuesday that he would consider including some of the same provisions in the Senate version of the bill.

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican and chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, said the changes are long overdue and that the protests come at the behest of powerful unions.

“You have a handful of union bosses who are afraid of losing their power,” said Mr. Davis, whose Fairfax-based district includes tens of thousands of the Pentagon’s civilian employees. “The unions give millions to the Democrats, and now they’re calling in their marker.”

The Republicans already have won restrictions on union power inside the new Department of Homeland Security, which employs 170,000 civilians.

“This is actually worse,” said Diane Witiak, spokesman for the American Federation of Government Employees. “This administration keeps talking about modernizing, but going back to a patronage system is not modern at all.”

House Democratic Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland said he supports reforms such as basing pay raises on job performance but says that “the problem is not with the system — the problem is with the carrying out of the system by managers.”

The debate has taken a twist this week with Democrats praising the Defense Department’s work in Iraq. Because of the Pentagon’s overwhelming effectiveness, they argue, no dramatic changes are needed. The Defense Department employs 700,000 civilians.

Democrats are concerned that the civilian staff issue will be linked to defense of the homeland. “Republicans will say we are holding up national security,” Mr. Hoyer said.

But, he added, “I think [the defense bill] will pass overwhelmingly with broad support from Democrats who stand squarely behind our troops and believe we must do everything possible to protect our national security.”

Rep. Ike Skelton, Missouri Democrat and ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, says he has reservations about the bill but that “in the end, I hope members will support it.”

“We Democrats support the troops,” he said.

But Mr. Dingell vowed to fight the staffing provisions.

“We’re going to give them the drubbing of their life when they bring this bill to the floor,” he said.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide