- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 19, 2008

When the Bush administration and a Republican-led Congress set up the new federal merit pay system about five years ago, it was the leading contender for government reform efforts Best in Show award.

Now, it appears that if the pay-for-performance model survives the next president, Republican or Democrat, it will be more like a stunted mutt than a streamlined greyhound — not that there’s anything wrong with mutts.

Under the original timetable, pay-for-performance should cover about half of the white-collar federal work force by now. Instead, thanks to opposition from unions and mostly Democratic members of Congress, the projected great leap forward has turned into a limp.

At the Defense Department, the biggest proving ground, the reward-punishment pay system covers only workers who are not part of various unions’ bargaining units. Although most feds do not belong to or pay dues to unions, most of them are covered by union agreements that have shielded them from merit pay plans at Defense, Homeland Security and other agencies.

In various court fights, unions were told that they couldn’t challenge portions of the merit pay system — called the National Security Personnel System at Defense — such as rating systems or the criteria to be used to see who did and who did not get raises. But they were allowed to zero in on labor-management issues. Unions, almost from Day One, have said the various pay-for-performance plans were a way to end-run unions or break them outright.

Officials at the Defense Department and other agencies — charged with carrying out the program mandated by the White House and Congress — said they had no desire or intent to break unions, but rather to work with them on bigger issues.

“In some places every time we even wanted to propose a change, we had to meet with dozens of unions … each of them bringing along a dozen people … over some very small proposed changes,” one official said. He said the joke became that “the reasons the fights were so bloody was that the stakes were so small.”

How small? A labor-management type at the Treasury Department said the union once filed a grievance against an Internal Revenue Service official “because he didn’t say ‘hello’ to a union rep he passed on the steps.”

The Government Accountability Office (GAO), charged with telling other federal agencies what they are doing wrong, hit its own internal speed bump when it implemented a merit pay system among its highly professional work force, which is mostly based in the Washington area. Key staffers were furious when an outside pay study said many of them already made more money than their counterparts in industry.

Other workers cried discrimination when the pay raises were handed out.

GAO — an arm of Congress which is not a hotbed of union activity or staff rights — for the first time has to contend with employee unions. It recently agreed to give staffers rated “meets expectations” or higher the same 4.49 percent raise that took effect last month for nearly 300,000 white-collar executive branch workers in the D.C.-Baltimore area.

None of the remaining candidates for president has embraced or denounced proposed changes in the way federal workers get pay raises.

A longtime fed whose career extends back to the Ford administration said, “I don’t know where this pay-for-performance thing is going. But if I were a doctor and it was my patient, I would want the medical bills paid upfront.”

Mike Causey, senior editor at Federal News Radio AM 1050, can be reached at 202/895-5132 or mcausey@federalnewsradio .com.

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