Lawmakers receive low marks on key issues

Joe Davidson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 28, 2010; 7:41 PM

Although the Democratic control of Capitol Hill has been good for federal workers, the second session of the 111th Congress was a bummer compared with the first.

That's the bottom line of a congressional score card released by Federally Employed Women, also known as FEW.

"The scores are much lower than last year's, and we can only conclude that this reflects recent developments in Congress to indirectly punish federal workers for our nation's budget problems," said FEW President Sue Webster.

The score card rates House and Senate members on 10 issues important to FEW's membership and has broad areas of overlap with the agendas of other groups. The measures include paid parental leave and senior executive service diversity bills, which FEW supports, and legislation that would cut federal pay and freeze government hiring, which FEW opposes.

One sign of the way Congress is moving on federal employee subjects is FEW's opposition to significantly more measures this year than at any point since it began keeping score in 2005.

That trend probably will gain speed if Republicans take over the House or Senate. The organization, however, expects to play more defense than offense when the next Congress convenes in January, no matter which party is in control.

Although Republicans have been on the forefront of proposals to freeze or cut federal pay and the federal workforce, the score card indicates that Democrats also are now less likely to be on the federal worker bandwagon.

"Next year we know our strategy is going to be more defensive than proactive," said Janet Kopenhaver, FEW's Washington representative. "That's a change for us. . . . We've seen the writing on the wall."

The change from the first session to the second is demonstrated by the scores that FEW gave lawmakers.

There were 52 representatives who earned a perfect score of 100 percent from FEW last time. This year's score card has none. Nine senators scored at least 90 percent in 2009. Only Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) did this year.

"This reflects the recent development of some legislators believing that fixing our budgetary problems rests on the backs of federal workers," Kopenhaver said.

She suggested that Democrats who supported FEW's positions in the first session might have been less likely to do so in the second because of media reports about federal pay, or that they might be in tight races, or the generally poor economic situation.

"That's the atmosphere we're living in," she said. "Other people are being folded into that tent and that's why we are so concerned."

Watch it

Sunday is Halloween, and federal employees need to make sure they don't end up in a trick bag.

That's the advice of John P. Mahoney, a federal employment lawyer with Tully Rinckey.


Because if Frankie and Flo Fed get too wild during the annual Georgetown gathering at M Street and Wisconsin Avenue, for example, they could be charged with "conduct unbecoming of a federal employee."

"Federal employees, in particular, need to use discretion while celebrating Halloween," Mahoney said. "The charge is so broad that it applies to just about anything and can even lead to your termination in a serious case."

This is more than theoretical possibility. Federal employees were disciplined for actions at a Halloween party within the past few years, according to William L. Bransford, a federal employment lawyer who is also general counsel of the Senior Executives Association. The question is, he said, "should the government care" about off-duty, off-site behavior?

Being drunk in public or getting a little too risque in a "naughty nurse" costume Sunday night could result in something much worse than a hangover Monday morning, he warned. With photographs and personal updates flying through social media sites, evidence of bad conduct is much easier to obtain.

"Even if you're celebrating in private, avoid taking compromising photos or allowing yourself to be photographed," Mahoney said. "You never know when those pictures will come back to haunt you."

The federal Merit Systems Protection Board, which hears cases concerning workers who have been disciplined, does not keep statistics on conduct-unbecoming cases.

But Mahoney said his experience indicates "it is becoming the most often charged description of alleged misconduct issued by federal agencies to their employees."

Managers use the charge because it can be easy to prove, according to Mahoney. For example, if an employee is charged with falsifying information, the agency would have to prove that the worker knowingly provided the false information with the intent to mislead the government.

But if the same facts were included in an unbecoming charge, then the agency would only have to show that the false information was provided, Mahoney said. The other elements, that is, knowingly providing bad information and doing so with intent to mislead, would not have to be demonstrated.

In one case cited by Mahoney, a Government Printing Office employee was fired after being arrested for driving with a suspended license and possession of cocaine and weapons.

Drug and weapon possession might be far more serious than what the average reveler gets into on Halloween. Nonetheless, Mahoney warns that booze can lead to drunken driving and sexual harassment charges that can get Frankie and Flo fired.

The consequences can be disastrous, he said, "leading to discipline, blemishes on one's record affecting future promotion and benefits, and even as severe as termination."

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