Senate Opts Not to Block Bush Outsourcing Plan
By J.R. Pegg
WASHINGTON, DC, September 24, 2003 (ENS) - Senate Democrats failed Tuesday to block the Bush administration's plan to study privatizing thousands of positions within the Interior Department and the U.S. Forest Service. Republican lawmakers said the outsourcing initiative is too important to American taxpayers for it to be halted, but critics say the administration's policy is diverting precious funds away from the protection of the nation's treasured lands and resources.
"Let us provide money if it is such a good idea," said Senator Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat. "Do not just steal it from other programs within the agencies."
Reid said the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service have spent a combined $25 million on the studies this year. These funds have been diverted from other programs, Reid said, who criticized the administration for not asking for specific funds for the outsourcing initiative.
"They are doing indirectly what they know they can not do directly," Reid said.
The House version of the Interior spending bill contains a provision similar to the Reid amendment - a fact not lost by senators on either side of the debate.
Montana Republican Senator Conrad Burns reminded his colleagues that the administration has signaled it will veto the Interior bill if the House language is included.
"While I am not generally one to back down in the face of such a threat, I do think we should consider whether we want to take that trip," Burns said.
Senate Republicans opted for a rival amendment to the spending bill that calls on the agencies to provide an annual report on the status and impact of the outsourcing initiative to the Congress.
"Imposing rigorous reporting requirements is the right approach," said amendment cosponsor George Voinovich, an Ohio Republican.
Voinovich says critics are misrepresenting the outsourcing initiative, which originally called for privatizing as many as 850,000 jobs across the federal government. The administration has backed away from set figures and agency quotas, but has lot none of its enthusiasm for the concept - nor have many of its allies in Congress.
Adopting Reid's amendment would "turn back the clock and head us in the wrong direction," said Senator Michael Enzi, a Wyoming Republican.
"At a time when budget deficits must be controlled, we should be taking full advantage of tried and true methods to cut spending and control costs, not trying to remove the option," he said. "Competitive sourcing is about increasing efficiency, not eliminating workers."
"Some people think you can privatize everything - you cannot do that," Reid said. "There are certain things that should be off limits. Our national treasures should be one of them."
And Republican lawmakers did not address one of Reid's primary concerns - that scarce funds are being diverted to pay for the competitive sourcing studies, which cost some $3,000 per employee.
"President Bush made a campaign promise to eliminate the $4.9 billion maintenance backlog that existed in the Park Service when he took office - that backlog is now estimated at $6.1 billion," Reid said. "Meanwhile, the Park Service has diverted funds from maintenance projects to conduct studies about outsourcing."
"If they were going to do it the right way, they would come before Congress and say: 'We want to study what is going on in our national parks. Appropriate money for us,'" Reid said.
Conservationists, who are strongly opposed to the outsourcing plans, did score a victory with the passage of a provision within the bill to limit the use of commercial advertising on the National Mall.
"It seemed clear to me that this was commercial advertising any way you look at it," Bingaman said. "The Park Service, unfortunately, takes the position that this was entirely appropriate."
The Bush administration strongly supported NFL event, which featured huge banners for Pepsi and other corporate sponsors on the National Mall.
President George W. Bush recorded a message that was played at the September 4 festivities, the Pentagon held a tribute to the military, and the Interior Department used the event to promote its "Take Pride in America" program.
But Bingaman and the vast majority of his colleagues - both Democrats and Republicans - said the event commercialized the National Mall.
Bingaman noted that the provision does provide that there can be sponsor recognition of special events, but it "makes clear we intend to have the Park Service interpret that in a way that is consistent with the special nature of the National Mall."
It also requires that the lettering or design that identifies the sponsor "not be more than a third the size of the lettering identifying what the special event is."
Bingaman also criticized the Park Service for giving the NFL a permit for 17 days "during which time they could block off the Mall, prepare for the festival, have the festival, and break down the equipment after the festival and so on."
"We do not want commercial advertisement on the Mall," he said. " I always thought that was the policy, and, up until now, I think it has generally been the policy. But it is clearly not recognized that way by the current Secretary of the Interior and the head of the Park Service. We need to clarify that."