Congress: Rightsizing debate should include feds and contractors

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree that federal contractors need to be a major part of the discussion on rightsizing the federal workforce. But, they ha...

By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

The debate over what is the right size of the federal workforce is expanding. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree that federal contractors need to be a major part of the discussion.

But members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on the Federal Workforce, U.S. Postal Service and Labor Policy have not yet come to terms with whether the debate is about just raw numbers or having the right number of employees doing an amount of work they can handle.

“Both the contracting workforce and the federal workforce need to be on the table when looking for places to save money. There is no question about that,” said William Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees and chairman of the Workforce Alliance. “But the biggest concern is if all we are interested in doing is saving money, and we are not looking at the consequences of slashing budgets or doing away with a certain percentage of the workforce, and not accounting for the work that is not going to be done or the reduced delivery of services to the taxpayers – that doesn’t ever seem to be part of the discussion when we talk about cutting salaries or freezing wages, or rightsizing or downsizing the workforce through attrition or other means. There is no accountability for what is the impact on the services, what is it we aren’t going to do or do less of. Nobody is willing to make decisions on that. That’s the concern I have.”

Dougan’s concerns seemed to resonate with committee members as well as the two lawmakers who testified about their bills to freeze or reduce the federal workforce.

“We need to look at the contractors, there is no question about that,” said Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.), chairman of the subcommittee, after the hearing. “We’ve got contractors at the Postal Service, at DoD, at every function in government. We can’t hide behind the fact if you are not a federal employee than it’s okay. We have to reassess our relationship with contractors. There is no question about that.”

Ross said he doesn’t support a specific ratio to replace federal employees or contractors through attrition.

“We have a ratio that hopefully will reflect the best relationship we have between the federal government and the federal employees, and it should be the same way between the federal government and federal contractors,” he said.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) represents both contactors and federal employees. He said the approach to looking at the number of federal employees and contractors must be fair and balanced for both sides. He said if the focus is on one group or the other, then it becomes a bigger problem.

“Making this a matter of theology is taking us down to the road to perdition,” he said. “Sadly, our Republican colleagues are focusing on the cost of everything and the value of nothing.”

And it’s the idea of savings where Democrats made their case that contractors should be a bigger part of the discussion to right size the federal workforce.

Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) said there are much more cost savings in looking at contractors than federal employees. He pointed to the administration’s goal to save $40 billion between 2009 and 2011 by reducing high risk contracts as an example of immediate cost savings by including contractors in the discussion.

“We are ignoring 80 percent of the costs,” Lynch said. “We are completely ignoring the contractor side of the equation, 10.5 million people. We are instead focusing on 2.5 million federal employees. It strains the limits of credibility to ignore 80 percent of our costs, [and] instead to point the finger of blame on federal employees.”

Lawmakers heard from Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) and Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pa.) about their bills to reduce the federal workforce. Lummis’s legislation, the Federal Workforce Reduction Act of 2011 (H.R. 657), would require agencies to hire one new employee for every two that left through retirement or other attrition. Lummis’ proposal would exempt the departments of Defense, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs.

Marino’s bill, the Federal Hiring Freeze Act of 2011 (H.R. 1779), would freeze hiring at all federal agencies and contractors except for federal law enforcement purposes, national security interests, reassignment of personnel to fill needed positions and the Postal Service, among others.

“I want to assure the ranking member of the full committee of my deep regard for public employees,” Lummis said. “I was the state treasurer in my state. I’m proud of the public workers and I’m proud to be a public worker. My bill is not designed as an attack or indictment of their skills. It’s recognition of where we are in 2011 with regard to the size of the federal government and what we need to do to address the impending, unsustainable shortfalls our debts, our deficits.”

Lummis said her bill would save $35 billion over 10 years.

Lummis said after her testimony Lynch has a valid point that her bill addresses only a portion of the problem, and would work with him to address the contractor portion.

“As we have to cut federal programs, if they are programs served by contracts, we should allow the contracts to expire,” Lummis said.

She said she would support a 10 percent cut in contractors as recommended by the President’s deficit commission.

Marino, a former U.S. attorney, echoed Lummis in stating his respect for federal workers. He said the goal is for employees to lead the way to reducing the federal deficit.

Connolly said reducing the federal workforce could cause harm to the public and could lead to the growth in government in other ways. He used the Food and Drug Administration as an example of how workforce reductions could affect how quickly new drugs get to the market.

And he said agencies could end up contracting out for services that are needed because they can’t replace a workforce, where 60 percent are eligible to retire in the next decade.

“I’m very dubious as to whether any net savings that are meaningful can be derived with that kind of mindless approach to so called rightsizing of the federal government,” he said. “If you actually look at the fine print of these bills, we are looking at devastation in civilian agencies outside DoD, VA and DHS. That is where the disproportionate share of these alleged savings and this attrition rate will fall.”

Connolly said these bills and many others are part of the majority’s efforts to use employees and contractors as scapegoats for the debt.

(Copyright 2011 by All Rights Reserved.)

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