Tom Carper is a storyteller.
If the genial, soft-spoken Democratic senator from Delaware responds to a question with “let’s back up just a little bit,” it’s a signal that the line from question to answer isn’t going to be a straight one.
Ask the new chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which has federal workplace issues on its broad agenda, about the potential federal budget cuts known as sequestration and you’ll learn his political biography before hearing about his 2001, silver Chrysler Town and Country minivan.
“Earlier this week,” he said during an interview Thursday in the Hart Senate Office Building, “if you looked at the odometer, it had these numbers in it, 3-3-3, 3-3-3 . . . that’s 333,333 miles. . . . It’s known around the state as the Silver Bullet . . . original transmission, original engine, original owner.
“I know how to get my money’s worth,” he bragged, “and I want to make sure our taxpayers get their money’s worth.”
Eventually, that leads him to the three principles he thinks the White House and Congress should keep in mind when trying to get the government out of its financial hole:
●Reform entitlement programs in ways that save money and save Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare for the long term, without savaging poor people or old people.
●Generate revenue through tax reform.
●Get a better result for less money “in everything we do.”
Carper is not among those pushing to extend the freeze on basic federal pay rates through the end of 2013, as more than two dozen House Republicans recently proposed.
“I think federal employees have already given at the office,” he said.
He urged respect for federal employees. “They are not nameless, faceless bureaucrats. . . . They are people who are serving our country, doing important work, and we need to keep that in mind.”
“We need to find ways to attract good talent, retain good talent and make that good talent better. . . . We need to be grateful for their service.”
Carper officially became committee chairman Jan. 24 and the panel is not fully organized. The Web page for the subcommittee that deals with the federal workplace still has photos of retired senator Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), the former subcommittee chairman.
“We are very excited about our opportunity to work with the committee chairman [Carper],” said Beth Moten, political and legislative director of the American Federation of Government Employees. “He’s been a very good friend of federal employees.”
Although the committee is still getting its act together, it’s not too early for Carper to set some priorities. His first hearing will look at the financial problems drowning the U.S. Postal Service. He also plans a thorough examination of the Department of Homeland Security.
Carper has been a leader on postal issues, cosponsoring postal reform legislation that the Senate passed last year. He began his discussion about postal issues by saying: “I look at the world as a recovering governor. I think one of the most important things we do is create a nurturing environment for job creation and job preservation.”
So, the 7 million to 8 million jobs that are directly or indirectly related to the Postal Service are on his mind. He met with Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe on Wednesday.
“I find it fascinating, but I’ve found it fascinating long enough,” he said of postal troubles. “I want to get it resolved.”
Toward that end, he has been talking with his counterpart in the House, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. When the Senate passed Carper’s postal legislation in April, Issa said it was “wholly unacceptable” and “would actually make things worse.”
Not a promising basis for compromise.
Carper, however, said he, Issa and Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the top Democrat on the oversight committee, and their staffs have been making progress toward a compromise.
“By the end of the year we had some promising conversations,” Carper said. “I think we narrowed our differences. . . . In terms of negotiations, we’re in the red zone.”
For the uninitiated on this Super Bowl weekend, that’s a football reference to being close to scoring.
Another item high on Carper’s agenda is the DHS, an agency that has had its share of bad reviews since it was cobbled together from 22 organizations 10 years ago. He said the ranking Republican on the Senate committee, Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.), suggested “we do a series of top-to-bottom reviews, soup to nuts, A to Z, hearings on the department. We’re going to do that.”
Talk about the DHS leads to questions about Transportation Security Administration officers, who have been the target of Republicans, particularly in the House. That leads to a story about Carper’s teenage days working in Patton’s Market, his aunt and uncle’s store in Beckley, W.Va., where his grandfather was the butcher.
“I learned about customer service in that store,” he said.
That brings him to how friendly the transportation security officers he has encountered at airports have been.
“I want to put a spotlight on the different pieces (of DHS),” he said. “What are they doing, what are they doing well, what can they do better and how can we help them? It’s not going to be gotcha. It’s going to be positive reinforcement.
“And one of the best places to start with is TSA.”
Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.