Designing a New Federal Shop

August 6, 2002

The White House and Senate are headed toward an early September showdown over the president’s request for maximum flexibility in managing the new department of homeland security. Although the two sides agree on most of the details, President Bush has promised to veto the entire bill if he is not given the freedom to “get the right people in the right job at the right time, and hold them accountable.”

The Senate majority says the stalemate is between worker protection and abuse, while the president says it is between national security and hungry federal employee unions. But the real choice is actually between the devil and the deep blue sea. The devil is in the old civil service system, which the Senate appears ready to impose on the new department. Unfortunately, the old system underwhelms at virtually every task it undertakes. It is sluggish at hiring, hyper-inflated at appraising, permissive at promoting, weak-kneed at disciplining and mind-numbingly elongated at firing.

According to a 2001 Brookings Institution survey, three out of four federal employees describe the hiring process as confusing, four of five say it is slow and a quarter refuse to call it fair. Moreover, two-thirds say the current system does not do a good job of disciplining poor performers.

The president is absolutely right to ask for something more contemporary. The current system was last reformed in 1978 based on ideas in good currency in 1950, which in turn were crafted from research conducted in the 1930s using data collected in the 1920s. It works best for employees who are willing to wait four to six months for a job they will hold for 30 years; in other words, a workforce that no longer exists.

The deep blue sea is in the president’s proposal, which asks for unfettered authority to design a homeland-security personnel system that is both “flexible” and “contemporary.” Because the president has never defined just what the two words mean, the proposal has become a kind of Rorschach test for every worst nightmare federal employees have about Republican presidents. The president’s own rhetoric has hardly helped calm things down. The more he talks about the need to hire and fire quickly, the more federal employees hunker down and think pink slips.

The president’s personnel adviser, Kay James, has been a calming voice throughout the dispute, reassuring federal employees that they will have a seat at the table in designing the new system. She has also been candid about what federal employees can expect from the system, including whistleblower protection and the right to organize where appropriate.

But there is a Grand Canyon of distance between what employees can expect from the new department and what they are guaranteed under law. Although the House of Representatives did affirm a long list of employee rights in its homeland security bill last month, it, too, failed to define “flexible” and “contemporary.”

There are two paths out of the impasse. For his part, the president should endorse the effort by senators George Voinovich (R-Ohio) and Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) to improve the civil service system for all employees, not just those lucky enough to work in homeland security. Under their amendment to the Senate bill, federal agencies would be able to streamline their hiring systems, improve employee retention, strengthen workforce planning and reshape their aging workforces. A good word from the president would ensure easy passage in the Senate and House. In return, the Senate should give the president the opportunity to design an alternative personnel system for the new department. There is simply too much to do in too little time to use the current system.

That flexibility should not be unfettered, however. The Senate should provide clear definitions of “flexible” and “contemporary,” and should specify the existing worker protections that cannot be abrogated under any new system. The Senate could also require that the new personnel system be submitted to Congress for fast-track up-or-down approval. The Senate could sweeten the compromise by promising quick consideration of the president’s nominees for homeland security, while streamlining the presidential appointments process under pending legislation authored by senators Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.).

Both sides must give if homeland security is to advance. The president must accept some constraints, while the Senate must release some authority. At least for now, however, the president’s proposal goes too far, while the Senate’s does not go far enough. The two sides need to use the summer recess to both cool down and come to agreement.