The Federal Diary
The Federal Diary
Joe Davidson

Florida congressman Ross discusses federal workforce issues

Lining the walls of many Capitol Hill offices are politicians’ photos showing them with fellow politicians and other famous folks.

In Dennis Ross’s office, visitors are greeted by the wall-mounted heads of two wild boars and a deer. Nearby sits a stuffed turkey.

Joe Davidson

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. Davidson previously was an assistant city editor at The Washington Post and a Washington and foreign correspondent with The Wall Street Journal, where he covered federal agencies and political campaigns.

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(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call Photos) - In the office of Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.), visitors are greeted by the wall-mounted heads of two wild boars and a deer.

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The trophies mark Ross, a Republican congressman from Florida, as an avid hunter. He can kill creatures with a rifle or a shotgun, but he prefers the bow and arrow. “I’d much rather archery hunt,” Ross said. “It’s just a relaxing challenge.”

As chairman of the House federal workforce subcommittee, Ross also presents a challenge, though not a relaxing one, for federal workers who feel like prey these days. They are the target of more than 20 bills sponsored by Republicans, including Ross, that would hit their pay or benefits or reduce their number in the name of deficit reduction.

Ross talked with the Federal Diary on Tuesday about hunting, the Detroit Tigers (another passion) and federal workforce issues. Here is a transcript of that conversation, just the workforce part, that has been edited for clarity and length:

Federal Diary: Federal employees, their unions and Democrats say federal employees have sacrificed enough, through the two-year freeze on basic pay rates that will cost them $60 billion over 10 years and increased pension contributions for new workers that will save another $15 billion.

Ross: I understand their feelings. None of this is personal. Obviously, it would never be personal. But when we look at a workforce that’s larger than it’s ever been [actually government figures indicate it was larger 20 years ago and under President Ronald Reagan] . . . in order to make sure there is a legacy benefit for them in the future, we’ve got to make these changes now.

I will point out that my pension bill [which would among other things increase employee contributions toward retirement] — the only reason I pushed that is because it applied to members of Congress and brought us into parity with federal workers. I have a very difficult time believing that we should change the federal workforce without changing congressional pensions the same way. . . .

I’m never going to be popular, anything but popular, with them, but it’s an issue [the government’s financial situation] that we can’t ignore, that we have to address. . . .

If I had my druthers, I’d reshape the federal workforce to go after the GS, the General Schedule, because I think that’s not adequately paying those who are performing well in the federal workforce. . . . I think we hamstring the managers and supervisors because of the GS schedule.

How would you change the schedule?

I believe there should be some performance-based reward. . . .

I think federal workers provide an incredibly valuable service to us. There is no question about it. I want to see us recruit and retain the best that we possibly can. . . . To get the most out of employees who want to perform well, I think an incentive-based, a performance-based program is a good idea. We’re not going to see that happen in this Congress. But it’s a discussion. I would love to bring the federal employees to the table and get their input on it. They’re the ones that know better.

President Obama’s budget says there was one federal employee for every 92 residents in the 1950s and 1960s, and in 2011 it was one for every 145 residents. Do you feel the workforce needs to be cut even more?

There are a couple of things we need to look at, and one of them is contracting. We need to put just as much scrutiny on private contracting as we do on the federal workforce.

While ratio-wise we have reduced the size of the federal workforce, I think what we have to do is to start to fundamentally determine what are essential government functions. And then anything on top of that, if it is a private-sector function, then we shouldn’t contract it, we should let the private sector handle it.

You favor cutting the federal workforce by attrition. What services are you willing to cut?

The GAO [Government Accountability Office] did an assessment of duplication of services. That’s our starting point. We look at their report and find out what duplications we have and what we can consolidate. That might be more than enough to bring things in line. That data is available to us. It would be good to act on that.

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson. Follow the Federal Diary on Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP.

 
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