Congressional moves against outsourcing on the rise

Two new amendments attached to Senate spending bills threaten to curtail the Bush administration's effort to compete government jobs with the private sector.

The amendments are the latest in a series this year that have sought to curtail the public-private competition effort.

One amendment, sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), would prevent the Homeland Security Department from competing the jobs of about 1,000 immigration services personnel. The amendment was added to the DHS appropriations bill yesterday.

Another amendment, sponsored by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), would scrap the public-private competition process that went into effect in May 2003. It would instead require agencies to use the old process, which was criticized by both industry and government as too complicated and too lengthy. The amendment was added to the Transportation and Treasury departments spending bill today.

Mikulski said the old rules would be used until the administration devised another process that is fairer to federal employees. She said the current process is not fair because it forces federal employees to compete for their jobs every five years, and because contractors can put together a lower-priced bid by providing inferior benefits such as health care.

Mathew Blum, an Office of Management and Budget attorney, said the effort to stop the competition of the immigration services jobs is troubling because staff levels are so low that immigrants must line up at immigration offices at 4 a.m. to ensure that they are seen by an staff member that day.

"Competition is an important mechanism to help restructure this activity. The potential that they might stop this process is very bad for taxpayers," said Blum, who spoke at the IRMCO conference in Cambridge, Md.

But John Threlkeld, a spokesman for the American Federation of Government Employees, said a consultant hired by the Homeland Security Department recommended that the department not compete the immigration jobs because doing so would interfere with restructuring the immigration services function. AFGE is a Washington-based union of 600,000 federal and District of Columbia government workers.

"As for understaffing, that is, indeed, a problem, because Congress and the administration have imposed a staffing freeze on this workforce," Threlkeld said. "To paraphrase a catchphrase from the previous administration, 'it's the staffing, stupid, not the contracting out.'"

Industry executives speaking at the IRMCO conference said the efforts to curtail public-private competitions have already stifled industry interest in the competitions, and will eventually cause companies to walk away altogether, said Chris Jahn, president of the Contract Services Association of America in Arlington, Va.

"It's really unprecedented," Jahn said. "We're very concerned about the direction this is taking."

Olga Grkavac, executive vice president of the Information Technology Association of America, also in Arlington, said the larger issue is that Congress is preventing federal officials from managing their agencies.

"It's not so much the 1,000 jobs as it is that Congress is micromanaging the agencies," she said.

(Posted Sept. 9 and updated Sept. 10, 2004)

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