Federal employees engaged, enraged over possible Republican takeover of House

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) visits a school. He is seeking reelection.
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) visits a school. He is seeking reelection. (Tracy A. Woodward/the Washington Post)
By Joe Davidson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 25, 2010; 10:32 PM

The past two years have been good ones for federal employees, and their unions are trying to make sure the good times don't stop now.

Federal employee unions are engaged and enraged as an election that might give control of the House to the Republican Party quickly approaches. The rage stems from Republican remarks and proposals that many federal workers can't stomach.

Take this August comment by House Republican leader John A. Boehner (Ohio): "It's just nonsense to think that taxpayers are subsidizing the fattened salaries and pensions of federal bureaucrats who are out there right now making it harder to create private sector jobs."

That's not going to win the GOP many friends from the federal workforce.

But while Democrats certainly get most of the unions' support, Republicans get a little play, too, if only to hedge bets.

"Labor was a little slow at the throttle in moving our program," said John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, "but it's in full swing now."

What is "really key," added National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen M. Kelley, "are the member-to-member calls which will be taking place this week. Throughout the week our members will be doing telephone banking contacting other NTEU members and urging them to vote for candidates who support federal employees and federal employee issues."

Kelley said NTEU has made $600,000 in political action committee contributions for targeted races in California, Missouri, Colorado, Ohio, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Washington.

AFGE is active in 70 to 75 races in 30 to 35 states, said Robert Nicklas, the union's political director. "AFGE is mobilizing members across the country in virtually every competitive House and Senate race," he added.

Labor's engagement was evident this weekend as members of AFGE and NTEU, the two largest unions, separately hit the streets, knocking on doors on behalf of Gerald E. Connolly.

Connolly is a freshman Democrat from Northern Virginia, and his congressional seat is not a safe one for his party. He's also a member of the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on the federal workforce, Postal Service and the District of Columbia, where he has been a vocal supporter of legislation federal employees favor.

If he is defeated, the union would lose an important ally on a key committee.

Connolly said Boehner's statement "crystallized for federal employees the choice they have in this election. We have one side demonizing them and another side championing what they do for the public."

Yet in comments to the Federal Diary, Keith Fimian, Connolly's opponent and GOP candidate for Virginia's 11th District, didn't echo Boehner's portrait of federal workers as fat bureaucrats who do more harm than good.

Some of his fellow Republicans have pushed efforts to freeze or cut the federal workforce and its compensation. Fimian said he opposes that, although he did put a Republican spin on the question. Federal employees "understand that wasteful spending like congressman Connolly has championed puts increased pressure on the federal budget and could actually lead to significant cuts to federal jobs," Fimian said.

But federal employees apparently aren't buying what Fimian is selling. When asked by e-mail to name the federal employee organizations supporting him, he had no answer.

Despite the generally bad rap Republicans have with federal employees, that's not always the case. Postal unions, including the National Association of Postmasters and the National Association of Letter Carriers, are among the top contributors to the campaign of Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the conservative Utah Republican who probably would become chairman of the workforce panel if his party wins control of the House.

With a $10,000 contribution, no organization contributed more than the National Rural Letter Carriers Association to Chaffetz, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Ken Parmelee, an association legislative consultant, said the organization doesn't always agree with Chaffetz, "but we appreciate the opportunity to educate him on our point of view and therefore we are willing to support his reelection efforts."

Parmelee said the association generally gives two-thirds of its support to Democrats and one-third to Republicans, including Rep. Darrell E. Issa of California, the top Republican on the oversight committee, who probably would take its chairmanship if Republicans win the House.

"The thinking is you can't pass legislation with just one party," Parmelee said.

Yet, clearly, one party backs federal employee efforts, as identified by their leadership, more than the other. When Republicans were in charge, complaints by federal workers that their agencies did not have the troops to do their missions were rampant. Many don't want those days to return.

"If this Congress goes Republican - if it [becomes] federal employee enemies like it seems like it's doing - federal employee heads will be the first on the chopping block to make up for the deficit, which is not our fault," Gage said.

"Federal employees have a lot at stake here," Gage said.

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