Fighting for Peter

Posted February 13, 2008 at 6:28pm

Pay-for-performance systems took a beating from experts at a hearing this week, throwing more uncertainty on the long-term viability of the Government Accountability Office’s controversial pay system.

[IMGCAP(1)]On Tuesday, the Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Federal Workforce, Postal Service and the District of Columbia called on a dozen federal officials and experts to give their opinions on pay systems that are based on performance reviews. Most said that current systems were flawed, primarily because performance reviews are always subjective and employees don’t buy into the arrangement.

Even the name of the hearing reflected the subcommittee’s outlook on taking cost-of-living allowances from some to reward others: “Robbing Mary to Pay Peter and Paul.”

The same subcommittee is set to review a bill that would make several changes to the GAO’s operation — all requested by Comptroller General David Walker. But union officials hope to use his own legislation against him by inserting a provision to limit the agency’s market-based, performance-driven system.

They appear to have allies: Tuesday’s hearing left no doubt that Chairman Danny Davis (D-Ill.) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) are against pay-for-performance systems, and they repeatedly compared the Bush administration’s similar efforts with the GAO’s.

“This is a civil service system. Read my lips: civil service system,” Norton said, adding that government employees have the right to due process. “And yet for some reason, the administration thinks it can take away COLAs and the Congress will sit by and do nothing.”

In the past, they repeatedly have criticized Walker for leaving hundreds of employees without COLAs in 2006 and 2007. They were among several Members who sent a letter to Walker this year demanding that GAO employees get the same annual raises as other federal employees; a few days later, Walker agreed to a tentative agreement with the union that would ensure those raises this year.

But the subcommittee isn’t finished. It will consider Tuesday’s testimony when determining how to handle GAO’s controversial pay system, one staffer said. And in March, the subcommittee will hold a hearing on a survey it gave to GAO employees, asking what they thought of the pay system.

“If these systems are not fair and equitable, transparent and credible, and do not have the buy-in of federal employees, I do not believe they have a place in the federal government,” Davis said.

Free for All. Pay-for-performance wasn’t the only thing Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) dealt with this week; she introduced a measure on Wednesday that would prohibit the Smithsonian Institution from charging admission to any permanent exhibit.

Norton’s measure comes as the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History opens its Butterfly Pavilion, which will charge a $6 fee for adults, $5.50 for seniors, $5 for children and Smithsonian

members, and $4.50 for groups of 10 or

more people (except on Tuesdays, when there is no charge for the exhibit). While the institution has charged a fee for temporary exhibits before, visitors never have had to pay for permanent exhibits, Norton said.

Smithsonian officials argue the fees are needed to address funding shortfalls and a backlog of maintenance projects, but Norton said on the House floor that the institution should focus on upping its fundraising efforts instead.

“Admission fees are not the answer for American taxpayers, who have already paid through the 70 percent that the federal government already contributes to this public institution,” she said. “Federal taxpayers don’t expect to pay again.”

Bureaucratic Chat. Concerned citizens wanting to know about how caucuses work or where to find information on federal records now can turn to an online librarian.

The Government Printing Office has partnered with libraries across the country to offer “Ask a Librarian,” a service that allows anyone to chat online with a librarian.

“This service enables GPO and the depository libraries to help Americans answer questions about their democracy by connecting them to the expertise offered by Government reference librarians,” said Ric Davis, acting superintendent of documents.

Librarians are available 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Friday at govtinfo.org.

Birthday Votes. Last month, the House’s electronic voting system crossed a milestone: its 35th anniversary.

To mark the occasion, the Congressional Research Service released a report on its history and the many changes made over the course of its life.

The idea can be traced back all the way to 1869, when Thomas Edison demonstrated a vote recorder system to Congress. But, as often is the case when the government is faced with new technology, it took the legislative branch more than 100 years and 50 bills to finally adopt an automated system.

Numerous improvements and changes have been made over the years. In 1977, officials made it possible for votes to be shown on a closed-circuit television, the precursor to C-SPAN. In the beginning years, changes also repeatedly were made to how a Member changed his or her vote, finally settling on allowing them to change votes electronically within the first 10 minutes.

In recent years, the system has remained unchanged. The last significant improvement was during the 105th Congress, when digital cards took over paper ones.

Delayed. The House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch has postponed a hearing scheduled for today addressing the budgets for the House officers.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the meeting had not been rescheduled.

In Court. Two defendants who made headlines on Capitol Hill in recent months are scheduled to be in court today.

Capitol Police Officer Karen Emory is set to appear for a motions hearing in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Emory is accused of setting one of the fires that took place in women’s restrooms in Senate office buildings in 2007.

Michael Gorbey, the man arrested for carrying a shotgun and other weapons near the Capitol on Jan. 18, will be in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia.

Judge Gregory Jackson is slated to decide whether Gorbey can represent himself during the trial. Prosecutors could file new charges against Gorbey after additional explosives were found on Friday in the pickup truck he drove near the Capitol the day of his arrest.

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