Pentagon Request for Broad Reform Meets Resistance

Despite its successes on the battlefield, the Pentagon won't necessarily get the sweeping reforms it wants from Congress, at least not without a fight.

Republicans and Democrats in both the House and Senate have expressed concerns ranging from frustration over the timing and breadth of the Pentagon's requests to outrage that it wants to remove perceived labor union protections offered workers.

However, in the final analysis, most experts think Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld will get much of what he wants.

Lawmakers reviewing the proposals raised eyebrows at a request for personnel changes that would exempt civilian defense workers from union bargaining agreements and place employees under a new "pay for performance" system.

"The Department of Defense now seems intent on waging a campaign of 'shock and awe' against its nearly 700,000 civilian employees," Rep. Steny Hoyer, House Democratic whip, said in testimony before the House Government Reform Committee.

"We must not allow that to happen," he added.

The 205-page document outlining the proposals by Rumsfeld includes a request to take out the department's nearly 700,000 civilian employees from the aegis of the Office of Personnel Management and place them under a newly created National Security Personnel System.

This would allow the secretary to waive certain employment practices, including current union bargaining requirements, if he deems it necessary for national security. A debate in Congress on a similar plan slowed the creation of the Homeland Security Department last year.

While the details of the system have not been settled, the idea would be to give the secretary more flexibility in hiring, firing and promoting the white-collar defense workers as well as award raises on merit rather than the standard federal pay scale.

Rumsfeld's request is said to go farther than the deal won by Republicans last year that enabled the Homeland Security Department to negotiate with its 170,000 new employees outside of union bargaining agreements.

"This is a classic partisan fight, because the Democratic Party enjoys the support of civil service unions and Republicans don't," said Christopher Preble, director of foreign policy studies for the Cato Institute.

The plan includes relaxing environmental regulations for military maneuvers, allowing top generals to work beyond their retirement years, eliminating some of the 800 annual reports the Pentagon must deliver to Congress and giving the secretary the discretion to move money in and out of different budgets within the agency to respond to immediate defense priorities.

The massive document has led to much grumbling by both Republicans and Democrats, who are criticizing the timing of the debate.

Both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees are taking up the reforms during mark-ups of the 2004 defense authorization bill, which outlines the annual budget for the Pentagon.

"We're doing this so quickly and so fast, I can't say that I'm real comfortable," Rep. Jo Ann Davis, R-Va., chairwoman of the House Government Reform subcommittee on civil service, said during a hearing.

"I'm not anxious to run forward and vote for something when I'm not sure what it's going to do for 700,000 people," she said.

Others, mainly Democrats, have voiced concerns with the substance of the package. Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, said he was concerned that without union protections, there would be "politicization of the most senior levels of our military leadership," and undue flouting of environmental regulations.

"I worry about the abrogation of congressional oversight and the ceding of authority to another coordinate branch of government in a way that diminishes the checks and balances contemplated by the separation of powers provided in the Constitution," he told the Armed Services Committee in a May 1 hearing.

Criticism has gotten so loud that the Pentagon's big guns went to Capitol Hill last week to defend the package. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness David Chu testified in hearings that the employment changes are part of Rumsfeld's vision to transform the military to reflect today's global challenges, including the war on terror.

"Our military forces have achieved stunning results around the world because they have a system of personnel management that allows them to perform jointly with precision and agility," Chu told the House Armed Services Committee. "The same cannot be said for the current [civilian] personnel management system."

The officials echoed Rumsfeld's February statements to Congress that the Defense Department of the 21st century needs to be "flexible and agile, so that we can move money and shift people, and design and buy weapons more quickly, and respond to the frequent sudden changes in our security environment."

One House Republican aide who did not want to be named speculated Rumsfeld would get his way on much of the reforms considering the recent victory in Iraq and his own popularity ratings.

"In the wake of Operation Iraqi Freedom, I think Congress is more inclined to look at any proposals sent by the Pentagon and the secretary," the aide said. "In other words, they're willing to give the secretary the benefit of the doubt. He's really showed he has the pulse on the military and its needs."