Players: George V. Voinovich

Ohio Senator Known For Independence

By Stephen Barr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Sen. George V. Voinovich -- former mayor of Cleveland, former governor of Ohio and Republican senator since 1999 -- was speaking to the Cleveland Club of Washington, which was honoring him with an award.

With Nicholas E. Calio, the former Capitol Hill lobbyist for President Bush, at his right, and Samuel Zbogar, the ambassador of Slovenia, at his left, Voinovich took the luncheon crowd through a nostalgic tour of his Ohio days, when he helped a city and state ride out the Rust Belt slump and regain their financial footings.

But his first question from the audience was not about Ohio. It was about John R. Bolton, the president's choice to become U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Voinovich unexpectedly held up Bolton's nomination last month after listening to Democratic complaints that the State Department official had mistreated subordinates who disagreed with him on policy issues.

"I am concerned about people's interpersonal skills," Voinovich said, adding that respect for others and how a person handles disagreements is important. "Leadership makes a difference," he told the crowd, which gave him a round of applause.

Voinovich's decision to slow down Bolton's appointment in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee came as no surprise to Cleveland exiles here or friends back home. Voinovich, 68, has earned a reputation for independence over the years. He called for reducing the cost of Bush's 2003 tax cuts, and he opposed the president's No Child Left Behind education law as an unfunded mandate on the states.

The Bolton controversy concerns Voinovich because it touches on his longtime belief that the federal government needs to take better care of its "A-team," as he calls career employees. As a mayor and governor, he learned that no program can succeed if it does not have the support of rank-and-file workers.

In the Senate, he has pushed initiatives aimed at improving the federal government's hiring practices and has chided federal agencies that cut back on training programs for employees. At congressional hearings, he often tries to emphasize the positive and encourages efforts to create a smarter and more efficient federal workforce.

Voinovich chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on the oversight of government management, the federal workforce and the District of Columbia. For the most part, the subcommittee's issues draw little interest from many of Voinovich's colleagues in the Senate.

But the low-profile subcommittee appears to suit Voinovich. In the past seven years, the panel has held 18 hearings on federal personnel issues. Among the topics: "Training Federal Employees to Be Their Best," "An Overlooked Asset -- the Defense Civilian Workforce" and "The Key to Homeland Security: the New Human Resources System."

Paul C. Light, a New York University professor who specializes in public service issues, said: "I love the guy. He's one of the very few members of Congress who really cares about public management."

Noting that Voinovich was a mayor for 10 years and a governor for eight, Light added: "Very few members understand the linkage between management, personnel and program success. They assume that all legislation is somehow self-executing."

"He's been around long enough to know that success depends on giving public employees, including labor unions, the tools to do their jobs," Light said.

Max Stier, president of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, called Voinovich "someone willing to labor in some of the least glamorous vineyards in order to bring out the best wine."

The Partnership and the Private Sector Council presented Voinovich with the 2005 Public Sector Leadership Award last night. Voinovich "takes his public service role seriously and understands where he can make the biggest difference for the American people," Stier said.

Federal unions have mixed feelings about Voinovich.

Union lobbyists wish Voinovich would join forces with Democrats to stop the erosion of collective-bargaining rights in the federal workplace. But they also appreciate the senator's open-door policy and support his efforts to hold the departments of Defense and Homeland Security to their promises to provide adequate training to employees before launching new performance-based pay systems.

"We don't agree on all the issues, but he has always been willing to talk to us, even about the issues that we are in disagreement on," said Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union.

Unions, in particular, value Voinovich's pledge to evaluate changes in pay and management rules at Defense and Homeland Security before allowing them to ripple across government, Kelley said.

She also praised Voinovich for helping pass a new law that permits federal agencies to give their employees compensatory time off for travel when they fly on weekends or on other off-duty hours.

In the coming year, Voinovich said, his top priority will be to help federal agencies find solutions to "the human capital crisis."

He sees a government faced with an aging workforce that is nearing retirement. He said federal agencies are at risk of not being able to recruit top-notch talent because fewer college graduates express an interest in public sector careers.

Voinovich said he hopes legislation, signed last year by President Bush, that changes how agencies interview, rate and hire job applicants will make it easier for federal agencies to recruit. The law also authorizes more generous bonuses, buyouts and early-retirement packages for agencies that need to overhaul their workforces.

The Republican senator from Ohio notes that the Medicare program is using more flexible hiring rules that he championed in Congress as the program bolsters its staff to deliver a prescription drug benefit next year.

"In any organization," Voinovich said, "you need good finances and good people."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company