Bill would put new A-76 competitions on hold for a year

House measure would leave fate of controversial program up to the next administration.

A House subcommittee has introduced a bill that would effectively end the Bush administration's already weakened competitive sourcing initiative.

In a markup of its fiscal 2009 appropriations bill, the House Appropriations Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee approved on Tuesday a one-year moratorium on any new A-76 competitions, leaving the decision to continue the public-private job competition program up to the next administration.

"The provision halts this administration's controversial and detrimental federal workforce program until the next administration has had an opportunity to consider and implement its own workforce policies," said subcommittee Chairman José Serrano, D-N.Y.

The bill has the support of federal labor unions who have lobbied against competitive sourcing by arguing that it amounts to little more than a thinly veiled outsourcing and privatization agenda.

"I think a governmentwide suspension of A-76 makes a lot of sense," said Randy Erwin, legislative director for the National Federation of Federal Employees in Washington. "The competitive sourcing program has not exactly been a glowing success, and who knows if the next president is going to want to continue what has been a very controversial program."

The bill provoked a strong rebuke from the Bush administration, which has made competitive sourcing a top priority of its management agenda.

"A moratorium would inappropriately interfere with agencies' ability to manage resources in the most cost-effective manner," said Robert Shea, associate director for administration and government performance at the Office of Management and Budget. "Competitions completed across government since fiscal 2003 are expected to produce more than $7 billion in savings, the majority of which are expected within the next five years. Most of these savings will be achieved by federal employees who have fared well under public-private competition by creating 'most efficient organizations' to eliminate inefficiencies from the federal workplace."

While fatal for the Bush administration's A-76 agenda, the language would not actually kill competitive sourcing; only permanent authorizing legislation would end the program forever.

"This language would just put the program in a wait-and-see position until the next administration can develop its policies on the federal workforce," Erwin said.

Serrano's bill is the latest and most aggressive step by Democrats to drive the final nail into the coffin of one of the administration's signature domestic policies.

In 2007, Congress passed a sweeping number of reforms designed to incapacitate the program. Legislation, drafted in part by Serrano, excluded health care and retirement benefits from the cost comparison process and established protest rights for the federal team.

A proposal to repeal those two measures was included in the president's 2009 budget recommendation.

Also signed into law last year were moratoriums on all competitions at the Labor Department, Bureau of Prisons, Federal Prison Industries Inc., Army Corps of Engineers, Forest Service, the Coast Guard's National Vessel Documentation Center and for positions related to the Office of Personnel Management's Human Resources Lines of Business initiative.

Previous legislative restrictions halted competitions at the Veterans Affairs Department and for specific programs at the Agriculture and Homeland Security departments.

Meanwhile, an amendment in the pending fiscal 2009 defense authorization bill would suspend all Defense Department competitions for the next three years.

The legislative backlash is nothing new for the competitive sourcing program, which has faced an uphill battle from the very beginning.

Expectations for the program were extraordinarily high at first, as Bush mandated that agencies compete 425,000 positions -- half of all federal jobs deemed suitable for competition. That figure was later reduced to 127,000 positions, but federal agencies still had difficulty meeting those goals as they faced fierce resistance from labor unions and Congress -- both Democrats and Republicans.

In fiscal 2007, agencies competed a modest 4,000 jobs. OMB officials, however, expect those competitions to yield $400 million in savings during the next five years.

Since 2003, federal agencies have held 1,375 competitions for just under 51,000 positions, according to OMB data.

The appropriations bill applies only to new competitive sourcing studies and would not affect any ongoing competitions. Agencies have indicated they would compete nearly 18,000 positions in fiscal 2008, although those projections are often overly optimistic.

"There are plenty of studies already in the pipeline that will take months, if not years, to complete," Erwin said. "Even with this one-year suspension, the competitive sourcing program will continue to be alive and well."

The appropriations bill also would end an Internal Revenue Service program that uses private contractors to chase down delinquent taxpayers.

"Under this very misguided and wasteful program, the IRS allows private contractors to collect unpaid taxes and to keep up to 24 percent of the tax revenue they bring in," Serrano said. "This program should be terminated."

Independent watchdogs have criticized the financial viability of the private debt collection program. A handful of bills to end the program have passed the House in recent years but have failed to gain traction in the Senate.