Lawmakers consider splitting governmentwide personnel reform bill

By Karen Rutzick

Some lawmakers and agency leaders are considering splitting a proposal to reform the personnel system in domestic agencies into two bills, one concerning compensation and another dealing with labor relations.

David M. Walker, comptroller general of the Government Accountability Office, told a congressional hearing Wednesday that the government does not have enough experience with labor reform to move ahead with a new labor relations scheme until the Homeland Security and Defense departments implement their new systems.

"I would divide this bill into two parts," Walker told the House Government Reform Subcommittee on the Federal Workforce and Agency Organization. "We believe that it may be prudent for the Congress to consider what happens with DHS and DoD before we move forward on [the labor relations] part."

Parts of DHS' labor relations reforms were ruled illegal by a judge in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in August. The Pentagon has not yet released its final regulations for reform.

Office of Personnel Management Director Linda Springer, who also testified at the hearing, said splitting the bill is a possibility.

"I think that's an option that could be considered," Springer said. "But having said that, I think we have drafted the bill with the thought that the two pieces do go together, and we think they both could be accommodated in a much, much reduced way from DHS." In the governmentwide reform bill, the labor relations part "is scaled down considerably" from what DHS has proposed.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C, and Rep. Jon Porter, R-Nev., who attended the hearing, all emphasized that the governmentwide proposal, dubbed the Working for America Act, is in draft stages, and is open to revisions.

Attendees debated whether the approximately 90,000 employees currently in alternative personnel systems, either through demonstration projects or in agencies with exemptions from civil service personnel rules, provide adequate examples for how personnel reforms work, or if legislators need to wait for DHS and Defense to try out their proposals.

Springer said results of demonstration projects and about 25 years of experience do provide a sufficient guide for crafting governmentwide reform. Walker, however, said that theory holds true for merit-based pay and classification systems, but not labor relations.

"Congress should move more cautiously in connection with labor-management relations and adverse actions and appeals reforms," Walker said in written testimony to the subcommittee. "Selected federal agencies have been implementing more market-based and performance-oriented pay for some time--some organizations for well over a decade--and they have built a body of experience and knowledge...On the other hand, the federal government has had far less experience in changes regarding labor management relations and adverse actions and appeals."

The American Federation of Government Employees, one of the largest unions representing federal workers, said separating the labor relations portion won't make the bill bulletproof.

"AFGE opposes both the labor relations and adverse actions and the pay system aspects of the WFA bill, so if the bill were split but otherwise unchanged, we would be opposing both bills," said Jacque Simon, director of public policy at AFGE. "Nevertheless, I do think it is a good idea, because they are entirely separate issues."

National Treasury Employees Unions President Colleen Kelley said no one has approached the union with a formal proposal for splitting the bill, and she has mixed feelings on the idea.

"I'm very pleased to see that GAO and Congress are looking very carefully at this system," Kelley said. "But I think addressing the problems in the pay for performance is as important as addressing the flaws that have been identified in the labor relations and adverse actions."

Experts and employee representatives also testified on a number of issues concerning the bill, including funding and the unused resources already in place, such as quality step increases and cash award bonuses, that supervisors are not using.