Foes Hope to Block Bush Plan for Limiting Detailees in Congress

For Immediate Release:

October 23, 2003

Contact:Stephen Barr

The Washington Post

T wo area House members said yesterday they would offer an amendment to block the Bush administration from tightening control over government employees assigned to work in Congress.

Reps. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) said they would seek to attach their proposed amendment to the fiscal 2004 spending bill that covers the Office of Personnel Management. The amendment would prohibit the use of appropriated funds to carry out a proposed regulation that places control of "detailees," as they are called, in the hands of Kay Coles James, the OPM director.

An OPM spokeswoman declined to comment because the agency had not seen the Hoyer-Wolf amendment.

Under the OPM rule, the Bush administration would require federal agencies to obtain James's approval when sending employees to work on Capitol Hill. The proposed rule would limit the time an executive branch employee could work in Congress to six months, with a possible six-month renewal. It also would terminate all detailees serving in Congress by Jan. 2.

The rule was prompted by a White House request for a tally of how many executive branch employees are working on the Hill, Mark A. Robbins, the OPM general counsel, said in a recent interview. The White House also raised other questions about detailees, such as how to assess potential conflicts of interest or matters of executive privilege, Robbins said.

The administration's rule appears broadly worded and capable of covering almost any kind of work performed by an executive branch employee on behalf of Congress. The rule goes to the heart of a decades-old practice that allows Congress to obtain the expertise of agency employees, especially on budgetary and technical issues.

Wolf, in a statement, said, "It's not clear why such a dramatic change that would affect the number, availability and tenure of executive branch detailees is needed." He added, "I would hope that OPM would not act so quickly on a regulation that would affect hundreds of federal agency employees and a significant number of congressional offices without consulting the Congress."

Hoyer said he has brought detailees onto his staff for more than seven years, "and my office has profited from their knowledge and skills. I fear that this rule will result in a significant loss to my office and to the Congress as a whole."

In a letter to the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees OPM, Hoyer and Wolf objected to the Jan. 2 deadline given agencies to recall detailees. "We believe that decisions about their future service on the Hill are best suited to the sponsoring agency and the host congressional office. To unilaterally end detailee assignments on an arbitrary date would be most counter-productive for all those involved with this program," they wrote.

Last week, 14 members of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, including its chairman, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), sent a letter to James calling the administration's proposal "fundamentally unsound." The senators said, "It would be a mistake to eliminate the existing flexibility in favor of a centralized bureaucratic approach giving OPM final decision-making authority."

Up for Bid at OPM

OPM's longtime effort to upgrade its retirement system technology took a new turn yesterday. Rather than continue with in-house software development, James announced that OPM will license technology from a company that administers retirement systems in hopes of providing faster service.

The bidding process and transition will likely take three years. Officials said OPM's benefit specialists would continue to make annuity calculations for retirees. Over time, OPM's technology staff will transfer to other jobs at the agency.

James also announced that OPM would conduct three "competitive sourcing" studies in fiscal 2004 -- involving 629 jobs -- to determine whether work should be turned over to the private sector or could be performed at lower cost by the agency.

The jobs include more than 200 customer service representatives, who take phone calls from federal retirees, about 300 administrative positions throughout the agency, and about 100 jobs in financial management, mail services and other areas. Officials said OPM would hire consultants to help employees make their case to keep the work inside the agency.

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