Tester combines rural sensitivities with support for federal employees

Joe Davidson
Columnist February 4

Don’t let that dirt farmer from Montana fool you.

From his brush cut to his size 12C cowboy boots, Jon Tester exudes the image of the wheat grower he is. With his frequent references to his farm near Big Sandy, you’d almost think he drove to Washington on a tractor.

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

But his plain-spoken, self-effacing manner can be disarming. Tester, a second-term Senate Democrat, has a way of confronting administration officials without making a show of it, a skill not always practiced by some of his blow-hard congressional colleagues, particularly those in the House.

It’s a skill that comes in handy as chairman of the Senate workforce subcommittee, a role that makes him a key player in the lives of 2 million federal employees.

Last week, for example, Tester held a hearing on allegations of widespread abuse of an overtime program in the Department of Homeland Security. Department officials had known about the problems for years. There have been whistleblower complaints, House and Senate probes, Office of Special Counsel (OSC) investigations, even an OSC report to President Obama in October on how the “administratively uncontrollable overtime” was out of control.

Yet it was just hours before Tester’s 2:30 p.m. hearing Tuesday that administration officials suspended the overtime program.

“Pressure From Tester Halts Government Pay Abuse, Saves Taxpayer Dollars,” is the way his news release reported it. While that headline overlooks the involvement of others, particularly the Special Counsel, the release does accurately convey the message that this country boy should not be underestimated.

The headline also looks good in generally Republican Montana. But there’s more to the story. Tester is sponsoring legislation that would overhaul the overtime system, leaving Border Patrol agents and others with smaller paychecks. Nonetheless, the National Border Patrol Council, part of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), has endorsed the bill. The council saw change was coming and considered the legislation better than the alternative, such as the unilateral action the department has taken.

Not only does the council support the legislation, but AFGE worked hard to get Tester reelected, contributing money and important organizational help to his campaign.

So here we have a situation where unionized federal employees back a bill that would result in a pay cut, and the bill’s sponsor is praised by labor like he was George Meany. Tester “has consistently supported the rights and interests of federal employees,” said National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen M. Kelley. Tester will be the keynote speaker at NTEU’s legislative conference this month.

“I think he’s a terrific choice for that really crucial subcommittee on the federal workforce,” said Beth Moten, AFGE’s legislative and political director. “That’s why we were so engaged in his reelection. . . . I put my best political organizer on the ground so we were fully engaged” in his campaign.

The senator from Big Sandy doesn’t forget his roots. He artfully marries his representation of rural Montana with federal workforce issues. He’s against the Postal Service closing facilities because of the decline in service, particularly in rural areas. He rejects the knee-jerk reaction against government employee travel that developed in the wake of highly publicized, over-the-top conferences. He wants Interior Department experts to travel to his state, for example, to examine water projects. “If they are not able to come out and see them, they can’t make a decision,” Tester said, “not an informed one, at least.”

Here are some of his views on federal workplace issues:

Appeal rights: Because of a recent court decision and “the arbitrary and inconsistent manner in which agencies designate federal positions as ‘sensitive’ to national security . . . tens or hundreds of thousands of additional federal workers” could lose their due-process rights, even though they do not have security clearances, according to a statement from his office. Tester’s legislation would provide them with Merit Systems Protection Board appeal rights.

“I think there has to be some changes,” he said during an interview. “If we made the right changes, I think it would help with our security. I think it would help with morale.”

Security clearances: Tester also wants Congress to provide better guidelines for security clearances, because the 5 million people who are eligible to have one “seems like too many to me.” The Security Clearance Oversight and Reform Enhancement (SCORE) Act he introduced increases congressional oversight of the security-clearance process and directs the Office of Personnel Management to terminate an employee or contractor who falsifies information.

Employee morale: “There are some in Congress who think that the federal workforce doesn’t do anything and they are overpaid, and so they get beat up with some regularity. I see it a little bit different,” he said. “We’ve got to also be competitive with the private sector.” If Congress takes from federal employees every time it needs to find savings, he said, “that has an impact on morale.”

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

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

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