Turnover on Senate panel will affect feds

Joe Davidson
Columnist November 8, 2012

With President Obama’s reelection, federal employees know what to expect from their top boss, albeit one who is many times removed from their day-to-day gigs.

There’s less stability at the legislative level, particularly in the Senate. Democrats will still control the chamber next year, but three positions important to the federal workforce will have new faces.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii) are retiring, leaving openings to lead the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and its panel on the federal workforce. Maine’s Sen. Susan Collins, the top Republican on the full committee, will be leaving that leadership post. These are key positions on Capitol Hill for feds during a period of budget tightening. The administration and both parties are looking to save money, and the workforce has been a convenient place to tap.

It’s not a certainty, but it’s a good bet that Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) will become chairman of the full committee. Currently he is chairman of its subcommittee on federal financial management, government information, federal services and international security.

Carper, a soft-spoken Vietnam War veteran who served in the Navy and former governor, just won his third term with about two-thirds of the vote. In recent years, he has spent lot of energy trying to reform the beleaguered U.S. Postal Service and improve the nation’s cybersecurity. A moderate, Carper seems to work well across the partisan divide. Postal legislation that he sponsored and that the Senate approved last spring has received mixed reviews from postal unions.

“Although the bill will provide the USPS with limited relief from the requirement to pre-fund health-care benefits for future retirees,” American Postal Workers Union President Cliff Guffey has said, “it does not provide sufficient relief. As a result, the USPS will not have access to the capital it needs to meet the challenges of the future.”

Carper wasn’t available for comment Thursday. He was busy with the traditional Return Day parade and festivities in Georgetown, Del. Return Day is the Thursday after Election Day and features community folks and politicians of both parties enjoying an ox roast, a hatchet toss and a cupcake competition.

They not only toss a hatchet, but bury it, too, in a symbolic ending of political feuds. The day fosters bipartisanship and cooperation, not a bad idea for the elected officials in Washington to emulate. Perhaps only in such a small state could a quaint notion like cooperation be enshrined with a parade and cupcakes.

“Sen. Carper hasn’t made any final decisions regarding the Committee’s specific agenda in the 113th Congress should he be chairman,” said Carper spokeswoman Emily Spain via ­
e-mail, “but he expects to continue the Committee’s proud tradition of working in a bipartisan manner.”

Spain’s comments indicate that Carper would be a strong supporter of federal employee issues, which would be particularly important given the decision of Akaka, a good friend of the workforce, not to return.

“Senator Carper believes that we need to recognize that nothing a federal agency undertakes can be accomplished without good people,” Spain said. “Unfortunately, many federal workers today feel demeaned, under siege, and unappreciated. Far too often, federal workers have become a political target. In addition, we’re facing a wave of retirements across government in the coming years and it’s important that agencies have the necessary plans in place to replace the skills and experience of the workers who will leave federal government service. He’ll be working to ensure that agencies have the plans, tools, and resources they need to ensure that agencies are staffed appropriately to be as effective as possible.”

The committee’s bipartisan tradition flows from the close working relationship between Lieberman and Collins, who’s leaving because of term limits on committee leadership positions. That means the panel will have all new leadership.

Frequently mentioned to take Akaka’s seat is Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska). He squeaked into the Senate two years ago by beating one of the more federal employee-friendly Republicans, Ted Stevens. Just days before the election, Stevens was convicted on corruption charges. That conviction was later thrown out because of Justice Department misconduct. Stevens died in a 2010 plane crash.

It’s not clear who will take Collins’s place, but Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.) has been mentioned for the top GOP slot on the full committee. He is a budget hawk and has called for cutting the workforce, its compensation and federal contractors.

Federal employees don’t like some of his ideas, but he is a man of principle, which can’t be said of everyone in public office.

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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