The voice of Elijah Cummings is like a cool breeze to federal employees who seem to be sweating under the heat of sequestration.
On March 1, the quickly approaching across-the-board budget cuts are scheduled to begin. Federal workers face unpaid furlough days that in some cases could slice 20 percent off their pay. That would be on top of a basic pay-rate freeze that has lasted more than two years. And add to that Friday’s vote in the House to extend that freeze through the end of this year.
With this backdrop, here comes Cummings, the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, with a different view. The committee has jurisdiction over many topics affecting federal employees, and Cummings (Md.) uses his perch as a strong advocate for them.
This is one in a series of Federal Diary columns exploring the views of members of Congress who are in prime positions of power over Uncle Sam’s workforce. We have written about Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, and have extended interview requests to the top Republican on that panel, Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.), and the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.).
If Cummings were not on the House panel, he would still be in the thick of federal workplace issues because the Social Security Administration‘s headquarters in Woodlawn is in his district. Yet even with that and his high ratings by federal employee organizations, it was last year’s program for the Service to America Medals, sponsored by the Partnership for Public Service for outstanding federal accomplishments, that demonstrated to him the breadth of critical work done by federal employees.
“That program blew my mind,” Cummings said. “When they told those stories of all those people who were doing great things, most of them not making a lot of money, it blew me away. . . . It was incredible.”
Experiences like that help solidify not only his opposition to more pay cuts but also his promotion of better wages and benefits for the 2.1 million federal workers.
Here are excerpts of what he said about them:
●Respecting the federal workforce:
“I’ve gained such tremendous respect for federal employees, because I’ve found that most of them . . . come to federal service because they want to make a difference.’
●Acknowledging federal workers:
‘We ought to be rewarding those folks. But instead a lot of times they hear negative comments about their work. Their pay is slashed. They are made to pay more in pension contributions. I could go on and on and on. Every chance I get I try to thank our federal employees. I try to acknowledge them for the many contributions they make, and I try to remind my colleagues of the important role they play in our lives.”
●House priorities for the workforce:
“The number one priority is trying to protect what we have. That’s number one. No doubt about it. After that . . . will come this whole idea of having restrictions on the number of people you can hire. I talk to my Social Security people all the time. One thing they’ve noticed is significant downsizing. You have one person doing the job that once three or four were doing. It’s almost impossible.
“Now because of the budget situation, they are going to cut a lot of that overtime out, most of it out, and what does that mean? It means people are working harder and the service is getting worse.”
●Federal health benefits:
“There probably will be some additional attacks on [federal employee] health benefits in one way or another. I don’t know how it will come, but it is something that we must guard against. Again, you can put all these things under the category of protecting our progress.”
●Federal pay raise:
“It’s not just important for our employees to get the little .5 percent raise that the president is proposing [to take effect at the end of March], and hopefully we’ll get them higher up the ladder, but we’ve got to make sure they don’t slip down the ladder either.”
●Obama administration and the federal workforce:
I think the Obama administration has got to work closely with the Dems in the House and the Senate to make sure we guard against the things I just talked about. I think he needs to keep putting forth proposals to give federal workers more money. . . . I don’t think we need to be arguing on the side of [cutting] spending . . . and basically pulling the rug from under . . . our federal employee base that allows us to live the kind of wonderful lives that we live.
“I basically think that the president should make sure he is protecting — and hopefully try to expand — their health-care benefits, making sure that we protect their pensions and putting forth proposals that will allow them to make more money. And making strong arguments for why those things are very important.”
Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.