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Bush Creates New Legislation To Shrink Federal Work Force

By Ellen Nakashima
THE WASHINGTON POST -- President Bush Saturday rolled out a government plan that could shrink the 1.8 million-strong federal civilian workforce through $25,000 employee buyouts, early retirement incentives and increased competition between the private sector and federal employees to deliver services.

The buyouts and retirement incentives are part of a series of legislative proposals that also include a form of merit pay for federal workers.

And, perhaps most controversial, they would give Bush “fast track” authority to scrap laws that agencies deem a hindrance to their mission if Congress missed a deadline for vetting those laws.

“Americans demand top-quality service from the private sector,” said Bush, who campaigned on a pledge to erase multiple layers of federal management, in his radio address Saturday. “They should get the same top-quality service from their government.”

The personnel legislation will be introduced after Labor Day, senior administration officials said. The fast-track bill, to be introduced later this fall, is likely to be a hard sell as it can be seen as “stepping into congressional prerogative,” said Sean O’Keefe, deputy director of the White House Office of Management and Budget. It would free agencies of laws “that get in the way of work,” such as one that bars the Agriculture Department from shutting a state rural development office, he said.

The “Freedom to Manage” legislation is part of a broader 14-point government plan, elements of which were outlined in Bush’s April budget. In it, he takes aim at government waste and inefficiency, noting that the government spends $45 billion a year on computers and technology -- more than on highways -- but “unlike private sector companies, this large investment has not cut the government’s costs or improved people’s lives in any way that we can measure.”

Many of the initiatives are not new -- like cutting fraud from the student aid program -- or already have been announced by the administration. The initiatives include eliminating barriers to delivery of government services by faith-based programs, expanding e-government and improving financial management. The Clinton administration also tried buyouts and early retirement incentives to downsize government.

But the legislation, which also includes hiring and retention bonuses, would take those tools government-wide. It is the latest, most concrete sign that the Bush administration is serious about reshaping the federal workforce. Reformers say the government is experiencing a “human capital” crisis: Half of its workers will be eligible to retire in the next few years, the average employee age is 46, and many agencies suffer from imbalances of available talent and needed skills.