Federal Diary: Freshman lawmaker, put in charge of workforce panel, says cuts are a must

By Joe Davidson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 26, 2011; 1:00 AM

Let's begin with a cautionary tale on governmental efficiency and how not to impress the new chairman of the subcommittee that oversees the federal workplace.

Freshman Rep. Dennis A. Ross, a Florida Republican, was moving into his still-barren office in the Cannon building on Capitol Hill when workers came to install a television.

When Ross begins the story with "We had what we thought was a TV," it's a sure sign of bad news to come.

"They spent a day, had three crews come in here, all day, trying to get the thing hooked up," he continued. Then he delivered the punch line: "The last crew that came in finally said, 'This is not a TV, it's a monitor.' It took a day, three different crews . . . that's just a very small example of a lack of efficiency."

Of course, his unfortunate experience with getting a television installed may not say much beyond that particular encounter. But first impressions do matter. And the television story is one Ross will remember as he deals with critical issues that soon will come before his newly organized House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on the federal workforce, U.S. Postal Service and labor policy.

Asked about his top priorities, he doesn't hesitate: "to reduce the cost of the federal payroll, while still maintaining a very efficient and effective workforce." A few minutes later, he adds with emphasis: "We have got to cut. We've got to cut. We've got to reduce the federal workforce budget. We have to."

Like many House Republicans, Ross thinks the two-year pay freeze now imposed on federal workers might not be enough. Will more than two years be required? "Probably will," he said. "I say that just from a cursory review of what I have read."

Ross is a member of the anti-big-government Tea Party Caucus and the Republican Study Committee, which includes most House Republicans. The study committee wants to freeze federal pay for five years.

"I wouldn't say I endorse it. I'd say it's on the table," he said of the five-year plan. "Right now it would be speculation on my part to say we have to go to a five-year freeze."

In his State of the Union address Tuesday, President Obama proposed to freeze all annual domestic spending for five years, a plan that could potentially affect the people the president referred to as "hardworking federal employees."

As for Ross, fixing government isn't the only thing that gets him going. He's really animated when talking about the 1968 Detroit Tigers team that won the World Series. (The Tigers hold spring training in Lakeland, Fla., which is in his district.)

Previously, Ross was a lawyer for Walt Disney World. He specialized in defending Disney against employees who filed workers' compensation claims.

"I have faced the unions before in the courtroom, but look, I'm not pushing for the eradication of labor unions," he said. "I'm pushing to make sure we have a strong balance between the needs of labor and the demands of the market."

In the view of Democrats in his district, Ross needs more balance. "He's a very ultra- conservative Republican," said Karen Welzel, chairwoman of Polk County Democrats. "I'm real worried about him being there, honestly. I don't think he'll look out for our interests. He's a big-business guy. . . . I don't think he's going to work for little people here in Polk County."

In keeping with the notion that Uncle Sam is too big for his britches, Ross thinks the federal workforce is too big. One way to cut the payroll is to cut workers, and that, in Ross's view, can be done without hurting service. That leads to another story, this one about how his law firm didn't need a librarian or research assistants because technology lets lawyers do their own research.

Technology means employees can "work smarter, not harder," he said. "I think in doing so you can provide much better service. I just believe the federal government is probably years behind in terms of technological advancements in the workforce."

Ross, acknowledging he still has a lot to learn, doesn't have figures on how deep the cuts should be. He's anxious to help the U.S. Postal Service dig itself out of its big financial hole and is willing to consider a proposal to reduce delivery days, though he said it's a move he would prefer not to see.

It's still too early to fairly expect him to have figured out everything. But it is fair to ask if a freshman, any freshman, should be placed in such a crucial position over the complex and arcane rules of the federal workplace. Such issues may not dominate front pages and national news programs, but every initiative affecting government needs employees to implement it.

"I'm a freshman in name as a new congressman," Ross said, adding that his bona fides include a stint in the state House and small-business experience, not to mention having been "a beneficiary of federal workforce services." The subcommittee's staff members, he added, are "seasoned veterans."

Ross said he plans to meet soon with federal union representatives. Don't expect a love-fest.

"We probably won't agree on a lot," he said. "But we've got to have that dialogue."


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