Agency drops bid to change work rules

The Baltimore Sun

The Department of Homeland Security abandoned its final court appeal this week in its push to take greater control over the way the agency fires, pays and negotiates with its workers.

The decision leaves union contracts intact.

Larry Orluskie, a spokesman for Homeland Security, said that the Solicitor General's office, which handles all appellate litigation on behalf of the federal government, made the call not to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

A federal district judge and three-panel appeals court already had voided workplace rules that would have allowed top officials to "unilaterally" ignore union contracts and implement reforms without consulting with workers.

The ruling was a major setback to President Bush's efforts to spread a so-called "pay-for-performance" program - one that ties raises to an annual performance rating from a manager - through the entire government.

Colleen Kelley, president of the agency's largest union, the National Treasury Employees Union, said that the department now must go through a "meet and confer" process to develop new rules that would replace the ones the court voided and to implement pay-for-performance.

By the end of October, more than 10,000 managers and nonunion members at Homeland Security will fall under the pay-for-performance program, known as MaxHR. But Kelley said that little work has been done on reforms for union members because the struggling agency has been roiled by high-level turnover.

"There's been so many vacancies that no one's been driving this since April," she said.

The agency recently hired Marta Brito Perez from the Office of Personnel Management to restart the effort. Congress gave the department until January 2009 to change its labor relations rules.

It's unclear whether the Department of Defense in a similar, but separate, case also will abandon its appeal.

Data notice OK'd

A bill that would require agencies to notify people if their personal information had been lost or stolen in a federal data breach has passed the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday.

The bill also instructs the Office of Management and Budget to set government-wide procedures for handling such breaches.

Rep. Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican, added the requirements to a Veteran's Administration bill. This year, an unprotected laptop containing Social Security numbers and other data on hundreds of thousands of veterans was stolen from a suburban Maryland home.

The laptop later was recovered and the data determined to be untouched.

Since then, the VA has added encryption to 15,000 laptops. Davis, who chairs the House Government Reform Committee, also asked agencies to account for any missing equipment that might contain citizens' personal data.

The Commerce Department replied that it could not account for 1,100 laptops, some of which contained Census data. The agency believed that former employees never returned half of the missing computers. Some agencies have not responded to Davis' request.

"This bill is a first step," Davis said in a press release. "If new policies and procedures are not forthcoming quickly, or if they lack the teeth to get the job done, I will revisit this matter with additional legislation."

Coalition backs FDA

It's very rare in Washington for consumer and business groups to unite. And when they do, it's even rarer for them to ask for more money for the same thing, especially for a regulatory agency.

This week, a coalition of business, consumer and patient groups as well as three former secretaries of the Department of Health and Human Services announced a joint lobbying effort to undo the "chronic underfunding" of the Food and Drug Administration.

"Everybody understands that the different segments will get something out of this, and they also may get something they didn't want," said William K. Hubbard, who recently retired from the agency after 14 years as associate commissioner.

Hubbard explained that more financial resources for the FDA could help businesses avoid recalls, bad publicity and lawsuits such as those that involved the FDA-approved pain medications Vioxx and Celebrex.

He said that the food industry, in particular, is looking for more inspectors to prevent the spread of E. coli and other bacteria, particularly in produce arriving from abroad.

"Just about every major improvement in the FDA has come about because a lot of people died," said Hubbard, a senior adviser to the coalition. "We don't want that to be the cause of the next budget increase."

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