A Wartime Civil Service

A big speedbump has suddenly appeared on the road to creating a federal Homeland Security Department.

It's a looming political fight over how many civil-service rules should govern the 170,000 employees who will work in the huge, terrorist-fighting bureaucracy.

Or, to give the other side: Just how much flexibility should the department chief be given to move or fire employees who are shown to be inadequate to safeguarding the nation?

President Bush has asked Congress to ensure he has the same management flexibility over the department's employees that they now enjoy (or don't enjoy) in their current agencies (22 in all). A Secret Service agent who can't protect the president, for instance, now faces different disciplinary rules from those facing less security-oriented federal workers.

One might hope the kind of lean, agile, and responsive department the Bush administration seeks could be created while also preserving workers' interests in being treated fairly in the workplace. But the civil service is a political battleground as old as the nation, and as the federal role has grown over the last few decades, so, too, has the power of unions representing government workers.

The unions have become a major campaign contributor to the Democratic Party's coffers, creating a perverse incentive for Democrats to expand the federal government. So the move to maximize civil service rules and collective bargaining for the homeland security workers has come from union-backed Democrats, along with a few Republicans in Congress.

Last week five Republicans and four Democrats on the special House committee creating the department split on this issue along party lines, with the GOP prevailing. Democrats vow to step up the battle this week.

Under current law, Mr. Bush can issue an executive order suspending labor rules solely for blanket national security reasons. In January, Bush did take away the ability of some 500 Justice employees to collectively bargain in order to help the department more quickly adapt to evolving terrorist threats.

Union representation, collective bargaining, grievance procedures, equitable pay, and whistle-blower protection are fundamental to civil service, but so, too, is the right of Americans to freedom from terrorism.

The task before Congress is to create the needed flexibility without defaulting to partisan politics or external political pressures.

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