By Zachary A. Goldfarb
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, December 18, 2006
As a member of the Democratic minority, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.) fought a Bush administration policy that increasingly opened up federal jobs to private contracting.
Although he and colleagues had some success, Van Hollen said that when the 110th Congress takes over next month and the Democrats are in the majority, he will have greater ability to combat the administration's policies on federal employees. "It's had a demoralizing effect on the federal workforce," he said. "I do think now we're in a better position to fix things."
For the past six years, unions that represent most federal employees have argued that the Bush administration has been hostile to the needs of workers -- keeping pay raises low, trying to prevent employees from organizing in the departments of Defense and Homeland Security, and outsourcing government jobs to the private sector.
Now, the change in control of Congress gives unions much more powerful allies in the legislative branch. Democratic lawmakers pledge to work on issues of central concern to the unions, but the administration outlines other priorities for the workforce and disputes any notion it has not pursued a course beneficial to workers.
The election of Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) as majority leader is seen as a boon for federal workers. Hoyer, who will be the House's second most powerful figure, represents Southern Maryland's 5th Congressional District, home to thousands of government employees.
Hoyer said he will work to create a "more cooperative relationship with the White House" to ensure pay raises and to contain rising health premiums. While he praised several Republican colleagues, such as Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (Va.), outgoing chairman of the Government Reform Committee, Hoyer said: "Republicans made it much harder to ensure federal employees received fair and competitive annual pay adjustments. . . . They also did virtually nothing to help resist the White House effort to outsource federal jobs to private contractors."
John Gage, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said that as soon as the Bush administration came to power in 2001, it wiped out "our partnerships with agencies, and since that time our ability to sit down with the agencies and work out problems and differences has really declined." AFGE is the largest union of government employees, representing 700,000 federal and D.C. government workers.
With the new Congress, Gage said, "we're hoping not only we'll have more access to committees and Congress, but that word will get down to the political appointees in the departments."
Labor unions were a major source of support to Democrats in the midterm elections. The AFL-CIO spent roughly $40 million on a get-out-the-vote operation, and union members contributed substantial sums to Democratic candidates. Hoyer was not in a competitive race but received more than $300,000 in money from labor-affiliated political action committees.
Clay Johnson III, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, called labor's criticisms of the administration "rhetoric."
"The idea that management would be hostile to employees is just foreign to me," Johnson said. "Everybody's focused on what we can do that's smart and professional and effective, to make sure we have the best and most effective workforce possible."
Johnson said the administration's goal in its final two years is to strengthen a management system that rewards employees who perform exceptionally. "I believe that employees want to be respected. They want to be challenged. They want to be held accountable. They want to grow professionally," he said.
According to the unions, federal workers have more pressing needs.
"We expect the Democratic Congress to support the federal employees with regard to wages, health insurance and retirement," said Beth Moten, AFGE's legislative and political director. "We expect them to support federal bargaining rights, and we expect them to work for reforms so that federal workers don't lose their jobs because of procedures or political influence,"
No issue has been more divisive than "contracting out," the phrase critics use to describe the outsourcing of government jobs to private contractors. Unions have fought efforts to transfer jobs at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the Internal Revenue Service and elsewhere. Colleen M. Kelley, national president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said one worrisome trend is the IRS's interest in using private debt-collection agencies. "There are going to be problems with taxpayer privacy," she said.
In 2003, the administration revised Circular A-76, which lays out the rules for job competitions, to direct agencies to evaluate whether more jobs could be privatized. The effort has faced stiff resistance on Capitol Hill. Democrats have argued that agencies are under pressure to privatize jobs that should be confined to government workers.
"I am not opposed to privatization, but if it occurs with federal jobs, then it must be legal and fair," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), incoming chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on commerce, justice and science, which will have authority over many of these issues. She also has many government employees as constituents.
The debate over privatization, among other disputes, is occurring against a backdrop of profound demographic change in the civil service. In the next 10 years, as much as 60 percent of the government's 1.8 million workers will become eligible to retire. "The long-term challenge for the federal government is to continue to attract the best and the brightest people. We've got to make sure we can replenish the federal workforce," Van Hollen said.