Ted Stevens, former senator from Alaska, was a champion of federal workers

Former senator Ted Stevens, one of the most powerful congressmen of his generation, was killed Aug. 9 in an airplane crash in a remote part of southwest Alaska.
By Joe Davidson
Thursday, August 12, 2010

Ted Stevens died Monday, when the plane he was on crashed into a remote section of Alaskan wilderness. He left behind a rich legacy as the nation's longest-serving Republican senator, a fierce defender of pork projects for his beloved state and an alleged perjurer whose conviction was dismissed amid charges of prosecutorial misconduct.

Yet overlooked in the reports of his death is the mark Stevens left on the federal workplace.

In the 1980s, as chairman of the Senate subcommittee on civil service issues, the senator from Alaska was a key player in the creation of the Federal Employees Retirement System and the Thrift Savings Program, the retirement investment plan for federal workers. His legislation led to its formation, and that "is why he is, and always will be known as, the father of the TSP," said Thomas Trabucco, the TSP's director of external affairs.

In later years, and before Stevens lost reelection in 2008, he sponsored paid parental leave for federal employees and pushed legislation to expand telework.

"As chairman of the Governmental Affairs subcommittee on the civil service . . . he worked closely with federal and postal organizations and strongly urged the Reagan administration to ensure that federal workers would be treated fairly in their retirement," said Beth Moten, legislative director of the American Federation of Government Employees.

"Recently his work on telework and parental leave were instrumental in developing that legislation. He also worked for years on behalf of his Alaskan federal employees to ensure that they would be able to participate in the locality pay system."

Although Stevens, an employee of the Interior and Justice departments before entering elected office, worked to improve conditions for federal employees, the programs he championed weren't just for them. He believed, said John Palguta, a vice president of the Partnership for Public Service, that improving the lot of the federal workforce resulted in improved service to the American public. (The Washington Post and the Partnership collaborate on print and online features.)

Stevens "understood and acted on a conviction that a talented, committed and engaged federal workforce would lead to better government," Palguta said. "I think the bottom line is that the senator wanted federal agencies that had the capacity to serve the people -- whether they be Alaskans or residents of the other 49 states."

Sometimes, being a strong advocate for government workers meant trying to slow the implementation of programs that may have sounded better on paper than they worked in real life.

Presciently, Stevens urged his colleagues not to rush a new pay-for-performance system for Defense Department employees. Congress approved the National Security Personnel System, only to dismantle it. Even supporters of the system say it was put into operation without generating sufficient support from employees, whose trust and confidence were needed to make it work.

"I do believe that management should have greater ability to hire, particularly in times of stress, such as wars and emergencies," Stevens said in 2003. "But I do believe there's an absolute necessity for a committed group of people who have decided to make civil service in the Department of Defense their careers, who can be protected against political change and personnel change above them, and can know that we value them as civil servants."

Like other Republicans, Stevens came from the right side of the political spectrum. Yet on a variety of issues, including those involving federal employees, he worked across party lines. And although he voted against raising the minimum wage, an issue that organized labor heartily supports, he drew respect from federal labor unions.

"While he was a Republican, Sen. Stevens was not an ideologue," said Matthew S. Biggs, legislative and political director of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers. "When he chaired the Appropriations Committee, he and his staff were always very approachable and open to the concerns of federal workers. In fact, he was instrumental in working to ensure that . . . retirement equity [for] federal workers in Hawaii and Alaska was properly funded . . .

"Overall, Sen. Stevens will likely be viewed as a 'fair but firm' lawmaker when it comes to federal employee concerns."

A similar view about Stevens was voiced 30 years ago, when then-AFGE President Ken Blaylock said of Stevens and Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (R-Md.): "On the gut issues, where fairness counts, we can depend on them not just to vote, but to fight for us."

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