Civil service protection

The Bush administration said it wants a separate personnel system for the 170,000 workers who will make up the proposed Homeland Security Department. Bush said he needs more managerial flexibility than what's currently available under the civil service system. There's trouble in River City, folks.

About one-quarter of the employees who would be transferred to the new department work under collective bargaining agreements. In a speech Aug. 15, Bush said he opposes any proposal that would take away his authority to exempt agencies from collective bargaining requirements.

The president said he is confident that even with new flexibilities, workers' rights would be protected. They would have whistle-blower protection and the right to join a union, he said. Still, I have my concerns.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, when pressed to explain the president's position, said the employees of the proposed Homeland Security Department would have all civil service protections, such as protection of civil rights and against discrimination. Well, of course they would have civil rights protection. Those are rights every citizen enjoys. It's got nothing to do with being a civil servant!

Fleischer really put his foot in his mouth when he cited this example: If a border patrol agent were found to be intoxicated on the job and allowed a potential terrorist into the United States, that employee could not be fired without a written 30-day notice and would have to be paid during the notice period.

Fleischer's response shows that neither he nor others in this administration understand how the civil service works.

For starters, if the border patrol scenario really happened, the employee could be fired immediately as a national security risk. But what if it did take 30 days to remove the employee? So what? No harm would be done. The employee would be suspended and given an opportunity to face his accusers. That's the purpose of a 30-day notice: to give people who have been accused of a breach of the rules an opportunity to prove they are innocent.

The Senate's homeland bill would limit the president's authority when it comes to managerial flexibility, and a committee has passed legislation that would retain civil service protection for transferred employees. The Senate gives every indication that it will not cave into the White House's approach, which could allow political managers to play fast and loose with workers' rights. This same unregulated approach has already given us the likes of Enron, WorldCom Inc. and Arthur Andersen LLP. Let's not repeat that mistake. We've had enough!

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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