Bush administration looks at privatizing federal civilian jobs

Friday, November 15, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Up to half the nation's 1.8 million federal civilian workers eventually could find they have a new boss or, worse, no job.

The Bush administration is taking steps that could lead to the privatization of federal jobs at an unprecedented level, and officials proposed rules Thursday to make it easier for companies to compete with the government for maintenance, construction, secretarial and other work.

Employee unions raised strong objections, contending the administration was trying to help its business allies at the expense of workers' rights. Bush officials said it was just a question of saving money.

"We want the best deal for the taxpayer. We want to provide the best service for the taxpayer," said Angela Styles, federal procurement policy administrator for the White House's Office of Management and Budget.

Republicans have long favored opening jobs to competition from outside government. They argue that competitive bidding will force bureaucracies to improve service and lower costs or lose business to the private sector.

The administration has identified as many as 850,000 federal jobs -- nearly half the government's civilian work force -- that could be performed by the private sector. For now, Bush wants at least 15 percent of those opened to competition by October 2003.

The proposal comes on the heels of last week's GOP victories in congressional elections, which raised White House hopes for Bush's agenda. The White House also is poised to beat back union opposition to rules that would apply to workers in the new Homeland Security Department.

"The Bush administration officials are at war with reliable and experienced rank-and-file federal employees," said Bobby L. Harnage Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees.

Growing work force

The federal work force under Bush is growing again, largely because of homeland security needs, said Paul Light, senior fellow at The Brookings Institution. He estimates that the work force will rise again to 2 million in the next few years because of increased hiring for airport screeners, air marshals, border patrol agents and immigration inspectors.

Privatizing so many jobs helps protect the GOP against potential attacks from Democrats that the era of big government is back under Bush, said Light, who thinks Democrats will try to make that a campaign issue in 2004.

Sen. John Edwards, a Democratic presidential hopeful from North Carolina, called Tuesday for a 10 percent cut in the federal work force that is not involved in fighting terrorism.

Republicans "don't want to be known as the party that increased the size of government going into a possible election campaign," Light said. "I wouldn't be surprised if they were to say they want to outsource or competitively source every job but the president and vice president."

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