With Voinovich's Senate departure, federal workers lose a champion

By Joe Davidson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 5, 2011; 12:26 AM

Despite all the talk by elected officials about federal employees, few members of Congress really give the workforce the attention they should. Evidence is in the poor attendance at subcommittee meetings dealing with Uncle Sam's shop, where the real work is done.

Now another voice will be absent.

When Congress convenes Wednesday, George V. Voinovich won't be there to remind representatives and senators, as he often did, "how important it is that we have . . . the right people with the right skills at the right place at the right time."

Voinovich talked with the Federal Diary on Tuesday, his last day as a senator from Ohio. It was also his last day as the top Republican on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on oversight of government management, the federal workforce and the District.

"The biggest challenge in the federal government today is to make sure human capital gets the priority that it deserves," Voinovich said. "There's got to be a deeper appreciation by members of Congress in terms of the importance of human capital."

Although they know how crucial it is to have top-quality congressional staffers, "those people in the legislative branch of government don't fully appreciate how important the folks are" in the agencies, he said.

Voinovich's appreciation for those in the trenches was bolstered by his experiences as governor of Ohio and mayor of Cleveland. During his 12 years as senator, including several as chairman of the subcommittee, he demonstrated that appreciation by getting into the weeds of federal workplace problems and learning details of arcane matters, such as supply-chain management. According to his office, "the senator has held more than 50 hearings and passed more than 20 pieces of legislation to transform government management and the federal workforce."

Among the measures he pushed was the new law that makes it easier for federal employees to telework; the Federal Workforce Flexibility Act, which provides managers with tools to attract and retain workers; similar legislation for NASA; legislation to improve management at the Department of Homeland Security; an effort to fix inequalities in Foreign Service overseas pay; and legislation to simplify the federal hiring process.

From his subcommittee perch, Voinovich regularly crossed party lines to work closely with Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), the subcommittee chairman. Generally, they were the only members at their meetings. Undaunted by the apparent disinterest of their colleagues, Voinovich and Akaka formed an effective team that provided a good example of bipartisan cooperation, an example that too often was ignored by others on Capitol Hill.

"George Voinovich is my dear friend and brother," Akaka said. "Senator Voinovich knows that our government's most valuable resource is its workforce of dedicated men and women. . . . I will miss him."

Although some Republicans and a bipartisan commission have called for cuts to the federal workforce, Voinovich said that many agencies "don't have the number of people that they need to get the job done," citing the Social Security Administration as an example. He said agencies should survey their shops to determine the appropriate personnel levels needed for their missions, then make the case to Congress.

"I've been very upset with some of our secretaries, I won't mention their names, who are not very aggressive about presenting their situation," Voinovich said. "They kind of put their heads down and say, 'Well, that's just the way it is.' "

His bipartisan approach isn't always welcome. With a chuckle during an earlier conversation, he said that some in his party consider him a RINO, Republican in name only. According to the biography on his Senate Web site, "In 2003, he had the courage to oppose President Bush's $750 million tax cut proposal." Broadcasting that is not the kind of thing that wins you friends these days among the party's dominant right wing.

This is a Republican who has the respect of organized labor, which is not to say they always agree. They don't. National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen M. Kelley cited "his distinguished tenure in the U.S. Senate," during which he addressed "issues important to the federal workforce, including improved manager training and expanded telework opportunities." But the union opposed his attempt to block pay raises for workers considered unacceptable because, Kelley said, certain "increases are already tied to performance."

Voinovich said his biggest disappointment was the dismantling of the Pentagon's National Security Personnel System, a pay-for-performance system that unions despised. At their urging, Congress repealed it, a move Voinovich thinks was a big mistake.

"I worked very, very hard to get the NSPS program passed," he said.

With Republicans controlling the House and holding increased power in the Senate, Voinovich said that federal unions "need to be more realistic" about what they advocate and oppose.

Asked to compare policies by the Obama and George W. Bush administrations toward federal employees, he said: "Candidly, I think that Bush's relationship with the federal workforce could have been better in terms of his communications with labor," Voinovich said. Against his advice, Bush largely discontinued the labor-management forums that President Clinton began and Obama reestablished.

"There were instances," Voinovich said, "where I felt they would have been better off extending the olive branch to the unions."

Voinovich gave high marks to Obama administration officials who oversee personnel issues, particularly John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management, and Jeffrey Zients, a deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. "I applauded [Obama's] adopting the new hiring procedures, which reflects the legislation Sen. Akaka and I introduced," Voinovich said. He said that the two-year federal pay freeze, which Obama proposed and Congress approved, "was an appropriate move on his part."

Generally on federal workplace matters, Voinovich said, "I think overall he's doing a good job."

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