- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 18, 2004

Everyone knows the Bush administration has presided over the largest expansion of federal government in a generation. What’s less heralded is its concomitant drive to rationalize government by overhauling personnel management systems, especially when it comes to defense and homeland security. For one, President Bush wants to pay in-demand workers more than others — particularly when it comes to our soldiers. It’s hard to imagine a more commonsensical policy than one which pays workers more for harder or more skilled work — or for more dangerous assignments. But lately, Congess has been acting to hinder just this policy and others. Maybe now, with a lame-duck session underway, it can start helping again.

It could begin by ending the “pay parity” doctrine. For about 20 years, Congress has judged federal civilian workers deserving of the same annual raise as their military counterparts. This year Mr. Bush called for a bigger raise for soldiers than for civilian workers. Congress cried foul. In September, Reps. Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican, Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, James P. Moran Jr., Virginia Democrat, and Frank R. Wolf, Virginia Republican, moved to keep pay parity intact. Meanwhile, Rep. Christopher Van Hollen, Maryland Democrat, inserted an amendment into a key spending bill calling for a 3.5 percent raise for civilians — more than double the Bush proposal — and tied it to an effective gutting of the president’s “A-76” reforms for Pentagon contracting. The message was clear: Federal workers are an interest group just like any other, and can mobilize legislators just as effectively as any AARP or NRA lobby.

The great irony is that when suburban Washington legislators aren’t driving policy on the Hill, Congress can be quite reasonable on reform. Last year, the administration pushed hard to change the rules governing hiring, firing and pay for the Pentagon’s civilian workforce, and it succeeded. The labor unions tried to thwart the reforms, but cooler heads in Congress prevailed. In November 2003, Congress passed the changes, referred to as the National Security Personnel System, which are now percolating through the implementation process. Pay-by-performance, higher salaries for high-demand occupations and a devolution of management authority to individual managers are among the most significant changes in the offing. In the coming years, as the first wave of changes are rolled out, we expect them to yield the same efficiency gains and enhanced performance that similar policies in the private sector can produce.

With the insurgency in Iraq and ongoing military manpower needs, now is no time for Congress to stand in the way. This month, the House leadership should make overturning pay parity a priority. In the past, it has proven capable of breaking the federal worker lobby’s stranglehold on policy. There’s no reason it can’t do so again.

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