Cool Reception for Pentagon Overhaul

Posted May 9, 2003 at 6:15pm

Senate Republicans say Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s acerbic personality is partly to blame for the relatively cool reception his newest plan to overhaul the Pentagon’s civilian and military workforce has been receiving on Capitol Hill.

“Rumsfeld may be riding high,” one Republican Senator said of the military victory in Iraq. “But his relationship with his top military [advisers] and Congress leaves a lot to be desired. … Nobody’s interested in breaking any furniture for him.”

Even GOP lawmakers sympathetic to Rumsfeld’s goal of acquiring more flexible employment practices say that his seeming lack of respect for Congress has made them less inclined to push aggressively for a proposal that many contend would give him and future Defense secretaries unprecedented power over hiring and firing decisions.

“He’s left a lot of sharp boot tracks on the backs of Members up here,” said one Senate GOP leadership aide. “He treats Congress essentially like dirt. … So [the Senators’] attitude is, they’ll get around to it when they get around to it.”

At issue for most Senators is what they feel is Rumsfeld’s pattern of sending complex and contentious legislative proposals to Congress and asking for near-instant approval.

“They just thought they could pull it off because right now he’s immensely popular in the country,” complained a second GOP Senator who asked not to be named.

Rumsfeld’s personnel proposal would allow him to bypass federal labor laws, including union collective bargaining rights, in the name of national security. It would also permit managers to transfer workers to other positions, and condition salary hikes on performance.

Both Democrats and Republicans have criticized the measure for not including worker protection and appeals processes as well as checks on the Defense secretary’s authority to sidestep labor laws.

Though the House Government Reform panel approved several of Rumsfeld’s proposed personnel changes last week, the committee significantly curtailed the scope of the measure by requiring the secretary to jointly issue employment rules with the Office of Personnel Management. The House Armed Services Committee is expected to include the Government Reform bill in its version of the fiscal 2004 Defense authorization bill, which will be marked up this week.

Senators in both parties, meanwhile, say they are not in any rush to approve Rumsfeld’s plans and may not even include them in their version of the Defense authorization bill, which is expected on the Senate floor at the end of May.

It’s no secret that Rumsfeld’s gruff and aggressive manner has been irking Members since the beginning of his tenure.

Rumsfeld has angered lawmakers in his own party by referring in July 2001 to Congressmen and Senators on Capitol Hill as “hillbillies,” by his decision to try to eliminate key defense contracts for new weapons (particularly the Crusader artillery system), and by his plan to relocate military planes from GOP-stronghold states, such as Idaho and Kansas.

“Partly it has been the timing of what has been happening in the country and the need for a strong military that has prevented people who otherwise would have taken a pot shot [at him] here and there from doing so,” said one former Senate GOP leadership aide.

Senate GOP Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.) acknowledged that “a few Members feel that way” about Rumsfeld, but downplayed the tension.

“We have a lot of sensitive egos around here that think that just because somebody comes up here and forcefully advocates for something that he doesn’t respect Congress,” said Santorum. “I’m not saying that we like Rumsfeld so much that we’re going to rubber stamp everything he sends up. I just see this as the [legislative] process.”

Other GOP Senators said Rumsfeld earned points with them for giving frequent and detailed briefings to lawmakers during the Iraq war, and some defended his style.

“He can kind of be a hard-charging, straight-answering kind of guy,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who sits on Armed Services. “But I like that.”

Still, it’s apparent that the Senate’s take-it-slow attitude toward the proposal could cause problems in the long run for Rumsfeld’s plans to create a more nimble Defense Department.

Lawmakers say Rumsfeld dropped the massive personnel reorganization in their laps hours before they left for their April recess.

“We agree with the Department of Defense that we need give as much flexibility as possible when it comes to civilian employees, but I’m not prepared to say today that I want to give complete control over civilians to the department,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), chairman of the Armed Services subcommittee on personnel. “This is such a major restructuring — I’m not going do something that major in a two- or three-day period like we’ve had to review this.”

Senate Armed Services Chairman John Warner (R-Va.), who like Chambliss declined to comment specifically on Rumsfeld’s relationship with Congress, did not include any of Rumsfeld’s proposed military personnel changes in the bill his panel marked up last week.

“Basically, we are not dealing with any of the packages that the secretary sent over here,” said Chambliss. “If it’s dealt with at all, it’s going to come through the [Governmental] Affairs Committee.”

Indeed, Warner has largely deferred on the civilian portion of Rumsfeld’s proposal to Governmental Affairs Chairman Susan Collins (R-Maine), who also sits on Armed Services.

In a letter to Rumsfeld last week, Collins and Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio), chairman of the Governmental Affairs subcommittee on oversight of government management, hinted that they may not have enough time to complete action on the proposal in time for floor consideration of the Defense bill.

“This is a process the Department began last spring, although it proved difficult for Congress to advance any legislative remedies due to the arrival of the proposal just prior to the Senate Armed Services Committee markup of the Fiscal 2003 Defense Authorization Act,” Collins and Voinovich wrote. “Although there is slightly more time this year to consider the Department’s personnel proposal as a part of the Fiscal 2004 Defense Authorization bill, we believe the request needs to be changed in several areas.”

Collins acknowledged that if her panel reaches a consensus before floor action on Warner’s bill, the civilian workforce changes would be added to the measure.