DOD taken to court over pay system

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A federal judge in Washington heard arguments this week from union and government lawyers over the Department of Defense's new personnel system that would wipe out guaranteed raises in favor of pay based on performance reviews from managers.

A ruling against the government from U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan could ruin President Bush's efforts to overhaul the civil service in the near future because the case covers so many rank-and-file workers, including ones at Maryland's Fort Meade and Aberdeen Proving Ground.

This is the second lawsuit from unions over Bush's "pay-for-performance" initiative. The first, which is on appeal, came from unions at the Department of Homeland Security. Unions have won two favorable rulings from U.S. District Judge Rosemary M. Collyer in that case.

But attorneys point out that although the two cases look similar, the fights are over two separate pieces of legislation that have placed different requirements on the two agencies.

Most important, union lawyers argue, Congress required the Defense Department to move forward with jettisoning the 15-grade General Schedule using "a collaborative issue-based approach" in its negotiations with unions. The unions also were supposed to play a role in developing the new rules and participating in "meaningful" discussions.

The same legislation, however, also permitted the secretary of defense to move forward with changes over union objections after deciding that "further consultation and mediation" likely would not "produce an agreement."

Sullivan will have to decide whether military leaders negotiated in good faith.

"Our position was and always has been that no discussions ever took place," said Joe Goldberg, assistant general counsel for the American Federation of Government Employees, who argued this portion of the unions' case during the four-hour hearing Tuesday. "That isn't to say that no meetings took place. The agency merely had its eyes open while our lips were moving. ... We were being talked at and told what they were going to do."

If Sullivan agrees with Goldberg, he could throw out all of the rules on that basis. Goldberg likened victories on most other points - in the Homeland Security and Defense suits - to putting holes in a building's support structure.

The holes wouldn't necessarily require that the entire building be demolished, although Goldberg would argue otherwise.

Encore performance

Siobhan Gorman reported on the front page of The Sun this week that critics considered President Bush's Wednesday visit to the National Security Agency little more than "Washington theatrics" - a "Karl Rove production," well-known author and NSA expert James Bamford said in the article.

If that is the case, then the trip was something of an encore performance.

In June 2002, as Congress began to ratchet up its probe into why the intelligence community missed signs of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Bush gave what The Sun described as a two-hour "pep rally" at the agency, working the rope line, signing autographs and telling reporters: "We won't back down. We never have. We never will."

Before that, the last president to visit the agency was Bush's father, who traveled there in May 1991 to congratulate the agency on its work during the Persian Gulf War and to attend a closed-door awards ceremony. That trip, however, garnered only a one-line mention in a front-page Sun article about Bush's health and hectic schedule that week.

The first president to visit the Fort Meade-based agency since its founding in the early 1950s was Ronald Reagan, who dedicated two new buildings at the post during a speech in September 1986, according to an Associated Press article written at that time.

Reagan, however, did not spend much time with employees. He canceled most of the day's events, including a tour, because it was "blazing hot," and "Nancy Reagan was dead set against it," said Bill Ferguson, a retired NSA executive, who helped coordinate the visit. Ferguson's wife, Clare, who had a ticket to watch the speech as an employee's spouse, said that Reagan also had been ill.

"The main reason it took so long for a president to come was that we didn't want the attention," said Bill Ferguson, who retired in 2000. "The less publicity, the better we liked it."

Targeting customers

GEICO -the insurance company that features the gecko in its advertisements - is the acronym for the Government Employees Insurance Company.

According to the company's Web site, GEICO founder Leo Goodwin believed that marketing to a targeted customer group - federal workers and the top three grades of noncommissioned military officers - would lower his costs and enable him to charge lower premiums.

Goodwin and his wife, Lillian, opened operations in Washington in 1936.

The writer welcomes your comments and ideas. She can be reached at melissa.harris@ baltsun.com or 410-715-2885. Recent back issues of Federal Workers can be read at baltimoresun .com/federal.

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