- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 3, 2014

The normal federal worker can’t earn a salary of more than $130,000 a year under the civil service system, but Uncle Sam has been hiring an increasing number of scientists, medical researchers and doctors at salaries double that amount under a special program to attract better private-sector talent.

The sudden salary splurge has federal watchdogs alarmed that a program that was supposed to be reserved for rare circumstances is being abused to hire thousands of people at salaries that can near the earnings of the president of the United States.

The Government Accountability Office, the auditing arm of Congress, has said it is concerned that the Department of Health and Human Services has a “lack of complete data and guidance” to govern the increased hiring of high-dollar researchers. Such workers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rose by 81 percent from 2006 to 2010, the GAO noted.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s inspector general announced an investigation this week into why highly paid employees lacked ethical guidelines and were allowed to own stock in companies affected by their federal research.

HHS has 7,000 to 8,000 superpaid workers under the Title 42 program. The EPA now has 23 hires, even though the original law made no mention that the agency could use the program. Some of the workers were brought in at annual salaries as high as $350,000, though the limit was dropped recently to $250,000 for most.

To put this group of superpaid federal workers into perspective, the leader of the free world, President Obama, earns $400,000 a year.

For creating a system that has allowed salaries to balloon without adequate oversight and allowed researchers to possibly have ethical conflicts of interest, the HHS and EPA have earned this week’s Golden Hammer, a distinction given by The Washington Times for examples of poorly supervised taxpayer spending.

If the salaries alone aren’t enough to raise concern, congressional lawmakers question whether the EPA even has the legal authority to hire workers at supersized salaries. Title 42 originally was designed to allow only HHS to hire scientists for special medical research. Officials at the environmental agency have argued that the authority was transferred when the EPA was created because some HHS duties, such as oversight of certain pesticides, were moved as well.

Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee have challenged the EPA’s interpretation, but the agency continues to allow Title 42 hires. The EPA inspector general’s office said it will examine whether the agency is managing those hires properly.

Although such reviews address some of the concerns, exasperated lawmakers wonder whether the bigger problem is overuse of the authority to make hires at big salaries.

“The program was intended for special use when there was no other way to hire these experts,” Rep. Joseph R. Pitts, Pennsylvania Republican, noted at 2012 congressional hearing. “It was never intended to be used as an alternative compensation program.”

The bigger fear is that Title 42 hires could expand with the same argument the EPA used.

A commonly cited example is the Drug Enforcement Administration. Since the office inherited the Food and Drug Administration’s oversight of narcotics, DEA leaders could argue that they inherited Title 42 authority as well.

Several lawmakers have attempted to reform the system. Rep. Joe Barton, Texas Republican, introduced a bill that would limit the number of people who could be hired under Title 42, but the legislation was never brought to a vote before the full chamber. Rep. Michael C. Burgess, a fellow Texas Republican, has introduced legislation that would stop anyone except HHS from using Title 42 authority.

EPA officials told The Times that the special hiring authority has “allowed EPA to more effectively compete for and retain for top scientific and engineering talent,” which has “allowed EPA to make strides in the computational toxicology, risk assessment, and air pollution arenas.”

A representative said the EPA’s hiring was reviewed by the National Academies of Science’s National Research Council, which “commended EPA’s prudent management of its Title 42 authority.”

Nearly all of the EPA hires under Title 42 have been for its research and development office. So far this year, according to federal records, the EPA was trying to fill two positions in North Carolina: a chemist and an endocrinologist, both with the National Center for Computational Toxicology. The starting salary for each position was $150,000 to $200,000.

• Phillip Swarts can be reached at pswarts@washingtontimes.com.

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