- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 10, 2005

Democrats on the House Committee on Homeland Security signaled a more aggressive stance yesterday, promising to oppose the administration’s plans to introduce performance-related pay for the department’s staff and exercise more vigorous oversight of the agency’s contracting practices.

New ranking member Rep. Bennie Thompson, Mississippi Democrat, also promised to emphasize diversity in hiring a new Democratic staff for the committee, after firing several members of a senior staff team described by Rep. Loretta Sanchez, California Democrat, as “five white males.”

“We’re going to be handling things a little more aggressively now that we have jurisdiction,” Mr. Thompson said this week, referring to the new oversight powers the committee has over the Department of Homeland Security.

Mr. Thompson said the Democratic minority would work with committee Chairman Rep. Christopher Cox, California Republican, “to the extent that we can.”

“They’ve been good to work with,” he said of Republicans on the committee, but added, “Where we cannot overcome differences … we will take it on ourselves to carry forward the work we think needs to done to make the country safer.”

As an example, he cited his determination to hold field hearings in ports of entry and other places nationwide “to hear from the people who are directly affected by the [administration’s homeland security] policies.”

He said the minority would hold these hearings unilaterally if necessary.

Mr. Thompson said one of his key objectives was to “stand up for the employees of the department” and oppose new personnel structures the administration wants.

The new structures would make it easier to fire employees and, say critics, are too limiting on the rights of labor unions in the department. The administration also plans to phase in a pay-for-performance system over the next three years.

Labor unions are suing over the new rules, which they say overstep the authority in the Homeland Security Act to modify the standard government employment conditions for the department’s work force. Colleen Kelley, the president of the National Treasury Employees Union, told a Senate committee yesterday that the new regulations would “create an environment of mistrust and uncertainty” among staff.

“We’re absolutely against it,” Mr. Thompson said of the pay-for-performance plan.

“This so-called merit-based system smacks of favoritism,” he added, saying it would undermine standards and “take out [of the personnel system at the department] the objectivity that we’ve learned over so many years.”

Mr. Thompson took the ranking slot on the committee after Rep. Jim Turner, Texas Democrat, decided not to seek re-election in a district redrawn to favor Republicans.

Mr. Thompson inherited a staff that was seen by critics like Mrs. Sanchez as too technocratic and insufficiently diverse.

Mr. Turner “had hired the first top five [Democratic] staff members before we even knew about it,” said Mrs. Sanchez, adding, “And by the way, those were five white males. … We always believed the staff should look more like the Democratic caucus, more like the American people.”

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