Labor Pains in Homeland Defense. (Washington's Week)

Article excerpt

After decades of voicing strong opposition to the idea of testing for steroid use, the Major League Baseball Players Association has agreed to random testing of major-leaguers in 2003. The decision represented some positive movement toward renewed contract negotiations between owners and the players union--and, more importantly, the possibility of averting a baseball strike just as the wild-card races heat up.

Not as promising are ongoing negotiations to reach a settlement concerning provisions in President George W. Bush's homeland-security proposal to grant greater flexibility in matters of national security. Addressing an audience in Madison, Miss., Bush again made the call for flexibility, emphasizing that he is "not interested in having to try to run a clumsy, slow-moving bureaucracy." The priority should be national security "as opposed to representing narrow political interests," he said, alluding to the alliance between the labor unions that represent federal workers and the Democrats who represent the union interests, primarily in the Senate.

A proposal to grant department managers more flexibility in hiring and firing employees is one such rift that is threatening passage of any legislation. Lives may be at stake, but the political stakes are at play as well.

"I don't get this debate. We have given [Bush] about 90 percent of what he wanted ... but he threw on these proposals that are irrelevant to our homeland security to give the new secretary powers over federal employees that no secretary has had before," said Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.). Adding hyperbole for emphasis Lieberman invoked the image of New York City firefighters "who we all celebrate for their heroism," noting they are union members. "Believe me, they didn't think about benefits when they surged into those burning buildings," he said.

Lieberman's own irrelevant contribution to the debate missed the central issue: how most effectively to rid the new agency of individuals such as the boobish airport-security screeners who force mothers to drink their own bottled breast milk as part of embarcation screening. Writing on the Washington Post editorial page, Paul Light of the Brookings Institution noted the findings from a 2001 Brookings survey that found two-thirds of federal employees felt "the current system does not do a good job of disciplining poor performers."

A different view is held by Jacquie Simon, public-policy director for the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE). "There has been a sort of semantic debate with the administration insisting that federal employees would actually maintain their collective-bargaining rights and that's actually not true ... they would only retain them for a transition period and then the secretary could do whatever she pleases," asserts Simon, calling the administration's proposal "unjustifiable."

AFGE supports the Freedom to Manage Act sponsored by Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio), which contained provisions to streamline the federal government's recruitment and hiring process. Some of those provisions were incorporated into Lieberman's measure. But streamline the firing process? Simon contends the disciplinary process is adequate and characterizes assertions to the contrary as "ridiculous."

Contrasting Simon's assertion is a Heritage Foundation compilation of Office of Personnel and Management (OPM) personnel data and corresponding analysis. According to the Heritage Foundation, of the 100,260 poorly performing workers in the federal government, just 2.8 to 3.5 percent were removed, less than .1 percent were demoted and 88 percent were given pay raises.

The matter of human-capital management is not so black and white. In 1998 the OPM conducted a study of efficacy and impact of human-resources management policies in agencies that operate outside the regulatory confines of the requirement of Title 5, which governs government organizations and employees. …

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