By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 17, 2008
In wooing federal employee votes on the eve of the election, Barack Obama wrote a series of letters to workers that offer detailed descriptions of how he intends to add muscle to specific government programs, give new power to bureaucrats and roll back some Bush administration policies.
The letters, sent to employees at seven agencies, describe Obama's intention to scale back on contracts to private firms doing government work, to remove censorship from scientific research, and to champion tougher industry regulation to protect workers and the environment. He made it clear that the Department of Housing and Urban Development would have an enhanced role in restoring public confidence in the housing market, shaken because of the ongoing mortgage crisis.
Using more specifics than he did on the campaign trail, Obama said he would add staff to erase the backlog of Social Security disability claims. He said he would help Transportation Security Administration officers obtain the same bargaining rights and workplace protections as other federal workers. He even expressed a desire to protect the Environmental Protection Agency's library system, which the Bush administration tried to eliminate.
"I asked him to put it in writing, something I could use with my members, and he didn't flinch," said John Gage, president of the 600,000-member American Federation of Government Employees, who requested that Obama write the letters, which were distributed through the union. "The fact that he's willing to put his name to it is a good sign."
The letters, all but one written Oct. 20, reveal a candidate adeptly tailoring his message to a federal audience and tapping into many workers' dismay at funding cuts and workforce downsizing in the Bush years. Many of Obama's promises would require additional funding, something he acknowledged would be difficult to achieve under the current economic conditions.
Obama spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter said the letters were intended to communicate to federal workers his position on their agencies.
In a letter to Labor Department employees, Obama wrote: "I believe that it's time we stopped talking about family values and start pursuing policies that truly value families, such as paid family leave, flexible work schedules, and telework, with the federal government leading by example."
Obama wrote to employees in the departments of Labor, Defense, Housing and Urban Development, and Veterans Affairs, along with the TSA, the EPA and the Social Security Administration. Defense was the only area in which he did not make promises requiring additional spending, the letters show.
Some worry that Obama may have overpromised, with program changes and worker benefits that would be impossible to achieve. "That strikes me as smart politics," said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. "We'll soon find out if he can deliver when he has to deliver his first budget."
Obama repeatedly echoed in his correspondence the longstanding lament of federal workers -- that the Bush administration starved their agencies of staff and money to the point where they could not do their jobs.
In his letter to Labor Department employees, Obama said Bush appointees had thwarted the agency's mission of keeping workers safe, especially in mines. "Our mine safety program will have the staffing . . . needed to get the job done," he wrote.
Obama lamented to EPA staffers that Americans' health and the planet have been "jeopardized outright" because of "inadequate funding" and "the failed leadership of the past eight years, despite the strong and ongoing commitment of the career individuals throughout this agency."
In his letter to Defense Department workers, Obama said he would examine flaws in pay and evaluation systems, but offered no high-cost initiatives.
Ruch said that if Obama cuts Pentagon spending, he will not have to work hard to help the other six agencies.
"These domestic discretionary programs are peanuts in the grand scale of things," Ruch said. "A small diversion from the Iraq conflict, if they were put into Interior, EPA or NASA, those agencies would be in their salad days. The National Park Service is laboring under a [maintenance] backlog that would be cured by a month and a half of Iraq expenditures."
While pledging money to some agencies, Obama also acknowledged that some cuts may be unavoidable.
"Because of the fiscal mess left behind by the current Administration, we will need to look carefully at all departments and programs," he wrote to HUD workers.
Gage said Obama would cut deeply into agencies he finds lacking, and the National Taxpayers Union says there is plenty of opportunity for savings. Congress last year refused to consider a 25 percent cut for 220 federal programs the government rated as ineffective, passing up a savings of $17 billion a year. Obama did not vote on the measure while he was a senator from Illinois.
His letter to HUD employees suggests a resurgence of the huge housing agency. Obama insisted that "HUD must be part of the solution" to the housing crisis and to keeping an estimated 5.4 million more families from losing homes in foreclosure. Several HUD employees cheered Obama's letter, saying they hoped one particular line foreshadowed the end of political appointees who didn't care or know much about the agency's work.
"I am committed to appointing a Secretary, Deputy and Assistant Secretaries who are committed to HUD's mission and capable of executing it," Obama wrote.
Obama also took aim at the Bush administration's focus on privatization, with contractors hired to perform government jobs -- often at princely sums. He complained that a $1.2 billion contract to provide TSA with human resources support unfairly blocked federal employees from competing to do that work.
"We plan specifically to look at work that is being contracted out to ensure that it is fiscally responsible and effective," he told HUD workers. "It is dishonest to claim real savings by reducing the number of HUD employees overseeing a program but increase the real cost of the program by transferring oversight to contracts. I pledge to reverse this poor management practice."
Gage said he is not expecting every civil servant's wish to be granted but he is hopeful.
"I think Obama's going to be fair, he's going to take seriously the missions of these agencies, and he's going to respect federal employees," Gage said. "After the last eight years, that's good enough for me."
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.