Union representing DoD civilians has big objection to next year’s budget proposal

Best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.

A section in the 2023 Defense Department budget request would change how DoD manages its civilian workforce. The American Federation of Government Employees thinks it could lead to wholesale reductions in the civilian ranks. For what’s going on, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin turned to AFGE’s Defense Department legislative representative John Anderson.

Interview transcript: 

John Anderson: There...

READ MORE

Best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.

A section in the 2023 Defense Department budget request would change how DoD manages its civilian workforce. The American Federation of Government Employees thinks it could lead to wholesale reductions in the civilian ranks. For what’s going on, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin turned to AFGE’s Defense Department legislative representative John Anderson.

Interview transcript: 

John Anderson: There is a massive contradiction in the president’s budget between, and I found it very positive when I saw the sections about strengthening the federal government workforce, and improving the hiring process. Then buried in the technical appendices is a reversion back to some very failed practices that occurred over the past decade where the workforces funding levels were disrupted through the operation of personnel caps. Now, the way a personnel cap operates is that funding that has been set aside and budgeted for the civilian workforce, once a civilian gets promoted, retires, leaves for another job, that manager who is responsible for the function has to worry about keeping that position, because it becomes ripe for the takings by the controller. And the controller doesn’t really care that much about total force management or the civilian workforce hiring. That’s the responsibility of the undersecretary of personnel readiness to be the champion for that. And as you have an incumbent as a political appointee, performing the duties of undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, and they either have been delays in their appointments, or have not really gotten up to speed and being a vigorous advocate of this function. The Comptroller, given their normal practices will just say, this is an easy way for me to harvest some dollars. And so they will take the money, if it’s a vacant position, if it’s a vacant position, they don’t have to do a rest. So it completely eludes any kind of congressional oversight. And then they wonder why this is the front ends of problems with the hiring process that most people don’t really get to. They just look at the back end, once a physician is established, and they don’t look at the front end of when a person leaves a position and a vacancies in place. And then it’s a free-for-all to protect that position.

Tom Temin: All right, so you have written to the chair of the House Appropriations Committee, defense subcommittee, and to Sen. [Jon] Tester, who is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee Defense Subcommittee, the two big defense subcommittee folks, and said, you’re citing section 129 of title 10, which is the overall kind of statute for civilian employees in the Defense Department. And you said that the provision in the request for next year eviscerates that. So tell us what 129 does, and how this request from the Biden administration eviscerates it?

John Anderson: Okay, 129 specifically mandates that the civilian workforce has to be solely managed, based upon those full force management principles in a separate section 129-A, which is separate from 129. And it is to be managed solely based on the full force management principles, the workload that’s to be performed and the funding provided by Congress. Now, the total force management policies that are supposed to be followed, they are the responsibility of the undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness to be the champion of those and advocate for them. And those policies requires the department to look at the civilian workforce, and the functions they perform holistically. Together with the capabilities provided by the active, the reserves component, military, and the contractor workforce. And to look at things from the standpoint of costs and risks, and the elements of risks deal with readiness, lethality, stress on the military force, and operational effectiveness. Now, the thing that really was alarming was not just this technical change, but the performance of the department. Very various budget hearings and posture hearings, before the House Armed Services Committee, Senate Armed Services Committee, and in particular, the Senate Appropriations Committee and the House Appropriations Committee, subcommittees of defence. And in particular, in a the hearing before the House Appropriations Committee Subcommittee on Defense, when Ranking Member [Ken] Calvert, did his perennial, he has done for the past 15 years saying, “Let’s reduce the civilian workforce by some arbitrary number, in this case, since military end strength is going down, you should have proportionately reduced the civilian workforce.” And he had that interview in the record without objection. And there was no vigorous rebuttal, consistent with the department’s previous budget, posture briefings and everything else. Instead, they met it with, “Oh, we are always ready to become more efficient.” Now, when you look at past Government Accountability Office audits of the department when they have tried to become more efficient, by cutting the civilian workforce, they found that essentially, the department just shifted the requirement done by civilians to higher-cost contractors, or to military to the detriment of readiness and [the force].

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with John Anderson, he’s DoD’s legislative representative at the American Federation of Government Employees. So the key sentence here is during the current fiscal year, which would be 2023. And this is from the request, the civilian personnel of the Department of Defense may not be managed solely on the basis of any constraint or limitation in terms of man years, end strength, et cetera, et cetera. So you’re interpreting this to be a gambit to just make wholesale cuts to the civilian workforce?

John Anderson: Yes, because of the injured position of the word “solely” suggests that well, they primarily may be managed based on that. And in fact, that provision, before it was changed by the appropriators to conform to the title 10 section 129 and 129-A, in fact, was interpreted that way. It was interpreted to say, we can manage the caps and in fact, that’s the way we do it. And as a result, you had massive levels of basically the department coming in and saying we’re going to spend X amount on the civilian workforce, and then they would not spend that they were shifted through contractors, essentially.

Tom Temin: So the question now is, have you gotten any response from the appropriators here? I mean, this was section 8008, in the appropriations request, out of probably 12,000. And I can guarantee no member of Congress can name all 12,000. So were they aware of it? Do they agree with you? What’s the reaction been so far since this letter?

John Anderson: Well, I’d say on the Democratic side, the reaction of the appropriators has been to thank me for pointing out that disconnect. There has been some follow up, I understand, with the department to try and find out just exactly where this came from. I have a sense that they haven’t been answered yet. And my instincts are the department is probably trying to figure out how it got in there.

Tom Temin: Right, because it did come from a Democratic administration, too.

John Anderson: Yeah. Now my hypothesis is, is that in the bureaucratic coordination process, this is a highly technical provision, it’s possible, this is my speculation, it’s possible, it came from the comptroller. And as the P&R – the personnel and readiness people, because that function was weakened in the prior administration, and the current incumbent has not really from my perspective, really vigorously taken on that function – that they missteps. That’s the benign interpretation of this. Now, a more nefarious interpretation is this is deliberate. I doubt that, I think it was probably a bureaucratic glitch. I’d like to give him the benefit of that doubt. But it also reflects the fact that the performance of the department during budget and posture hearings in this area has not been very good. And they did not prepare their senior leaders when Calvert gave him something that would be very easy to answer if they just read their own documentation in the past that they’ve done on the civilian workforce to answer him and say, “Actually, workload is going up, operational demand is going up. The national defense strategy does not say that military end strength should go down. The only reason it’s going down is we’re not able in this current job market, to get people to agree to enlist at the level of quality that we would like to have. Now the people that were closest to getting that direction were the Army, so I applaud the way they performed in the hearings, but in general, the department overall has not really adequately rebutted Ranking Member Calvert. If they just read their own documentation, it was easy for them to do so.

Tom Temin: So you’re confident this will come out?

John Anderson: I certainly hope so. And I’d say based on, and I’ve also had responses from some Republicans too and I commend Sen. [Thom] Tillis on the Senate Armed Services Committee side, because he seems to get when the undersecretary of Personnel and Readiness testified before the Personnel Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee and didn’t seem to be aware of his total force management responsibilities very well and had to be kind of reminded that he has those responsibilities, I think that both the Democratic side of the Senate Armed Services Committee and Sen. Tillis in particular, were very good on this issue of military end strength reductions. He understood that it had nothing to do with – in fact, he was concerned. Is this driven by some budgetary restraints from the comptroller or is this based on the national defense strategy? He gets it and I’m very, very pleased with the way he follows up.

Related Stories