Smith, federal union pan Space Force for proposed employee rights

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The Trump administration is getting pushback on its controversial proposal to build a new military service based on the space domain, but not for the reason most may think.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) and the nation’s largest federal employee union expressed concerns about how workers will be classified and what rights they will have as employees of the Space Force.

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The repercussions of the legislative proposal may sink the chances of Congress approving the Space Force as the administration imagines it in the 2020 defense authorization bill.

“A large part of the proposal is an attack on the rights of Defense Department civilian employees. It asks for broad authority to waive long-standing and effective elements of civil service rules, pay rates, merit-based hiring, and senior civilian management practices,” Smith said in a statement on Monday. “As a result, I will look at other potential legislative options regarding the Space Force, either in or separate from the annual National Defense Authorization Act.”

The administration’s proposal floats several provisions that would change the way Space Force civilians are treated compared to the rest of DoD employees.

The proposal allows DoD to fire any civilian in the Space Force if it considers it to be in the interest of the United States. A fired employee or one facing adverse actions would not be able to appeal or review the decision outside of DoD.

The administration is also proposing a more merit-based compensation system and excludes the Space Force Senior Executive Service from the Merit Systems Protection Board — established to protect the federal merit systems against partisan political practices and protect employees against agency abuses.

If passed, the provisions could affect 15,000 to 20,000 estimated to be hired on or moved to the Space Force.

“The administration is basically trying to create another class of federal employee that would have even less rights than a title 10 employee,” said Debra D’Agostino, a founding partner at The Federal Practice Group.

Title 10 employees work in the intelligence community and have fewer employee protections partly due to their work with classified materials.

D’Agostino said the classification is mostly unprecedented, but is partly reminiscent of the Veterans Affairs Department’s title 38 employees. Title 38 allows the VA to pay doctors from industry more money, but takes away some of their employee rights.

“I suspect the administration wants to use this Space Force proposal as a pilot program to say ‘Oh look this works, let’s spread it across the government.’”

But AFGE and Smith are questioning whether the idea will work.

In a letter to the congressional Armed Services Committees, AFGE National President J. David Cox said the system would “corrode any principles of sound government” considering an employee or whistleblower adhering to his or her oath of office could be terminated at will.

Cox said the proposal would reintroduce the spoils system by “establishing an employment system where ideology and political favoritism, rather than competence and professionalism, would govern hiring, compensation, management and termination” of employees.

The union president pointed to DoD’s failed attempt at establishing its own merit-based compensation system in the mid-2000s called the National Security Personnel System (NSPS).

D’Agostino said NSPS in theory was supposed to value performance and award good performance.

“What happened is it became a big messy game of playing favorites,” D’Agostino said. “It kept bubbling up and bubbling up to the point where they decided to scrap the program. The problem was giving civilians this unfettered discretion to give things like performance bonuses. It’s just too easy to give them to your buddy or the guy you’re comfortable with at happy hour than more objectively looking at folks’ contributions. Great in theory, but the government’s never really been able to make it work.”

Smith and AFGE’s complaints don’t stop just at civilian workers’ rights. They expand to the broader authorities needed to move civilians into the Force and the size of the bureaucracy.

One of the provisions on Smith’s radar is a provision giving DoD up to seven years to freely transfer military and civilian employees into the Space Force without appeal from employees or congressional approval.

Smith said DoD did not provided a detailed plan or analysis of the potential end state or cost.

AFGE furthered Smith concerns.

The proposal allows for the transfer of employees “without any mission or workload analysis or consideration of the impact that such an arbitrary treatment will have on employees,” Cox said. “This kind of treatment of the workforce would further detract from the ability of the department to recruit and retain the most qualified workforce.”

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan tried to sell Congress on the Space Force last week.

Shanahan said the Force, as proposed by the Pentagon, would have title ten military authorities, it would focus on space warfighting doctrine and culture, and it would develop and train a pipeline of space experts. The proposal is comprised of U.S. Space Command, the actual military Space Force and a Space Development Agency. The force will be between 15,000 and 20,000 employees with a budget the size of U.S. Special Operations Command. For scale, DoD requested about $15.1 billion for spending on special operations forces in 2019. For now, DoD estimates it will take about $2 billion over five years to get the force on its feet.

In the 2020 budget request, DoD is asking for $72.4 million for 160 personnel to stand up the Space Force headquarters, $149.8 million in new resources for SDA and $83.8 million for Space Command.

Shanahan tried to allay fears of the bulky, duplicative bureaucracy that comes along with creating a new military service.

“If we do nothing and maintain our legacy approach, at least 10 DoD organizations, working on space-based capabilities and architecture, will continue to develop bespoke solutions,” Shanahan said. “We need one organization in the lead to develop a department solution.”

Shanahan said he understands fears about bigger government and shares those fears, but said a full spectrum of space leadership and ownership is needed from procurement to personnel to research.

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