Diminishing civil service

Tucked inside the Bush administration's 35-page Homeland Security Department bill, which the House passed late last week, is a short sentence that has raised serious concerns among federal employees and federal employee unions.

According to Section 730 of the bill, "notwithstanding" the civil service law, the secretary of Homeland Security may propose federal regulations to establish a personnel management system that will be "flexible," "contemporary" and "grounded in the public employment principles of merit and fitness."

This appears to be administration-speak for "no civil service protection for homeland employees." Officials want to provide homeland security while denying feds their job security! I find this troubling. What's behind this? If the president thinks the civil service rules and regulations are too restrictive, I wish he would not sneak around and just come out and say so.

We know that many people in the administration who previously served in the private sector take a dim view of the civil service protections that feds enjoy. They think feds have too many rights.

The proposed legislation grants authority to the administration to exempt employees in the Homeland Security Department from Title 5 civil service protections and collective bargaining rights.

The use of the words "contemporary personnel system" appears to be an attempt to establish a work environment that is divorced from civil service pay, health insurance and retirement systems, merit-based hiring, firing appeal rights, whistle-blower protections, and rights to organize and bargain collectively.

Given that the administration is proposing to create what would be the third largest federal department (after the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs), Congress needs to ask why the administration should be granted special flexibility in setting the proposed department's personnel policy.

The administration should not have the almost limitless power provided in the proposed legislation. It is not enough to generally ensure protection of federal employees' rights. It has the potential to weaken the merit system principles that define and ensure the integrity of the federal civil service.

Federal employee unions say the proposed legislation is part of a strategic effort by the administration to restructure labor/management relations in the federal government, first by unilaterally expanding management rights and prerogatives and, second, by diminishing the rights and involvement of federal employees and their unions.

But despite the House's capitulation last week, I doubt the Senate will let the Bush administration remove 170,000 employees from the civil service — though it won't be for lack of trying.

Zall is a retired federal employee who since 1987 has written the Bureaucratus column for Federal Computer Week. He can be reached at milt.zall@verizon.net.

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