Sen. Daniel Akaka talks about federal workforce issues

By Joe Davidson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 2, 2011; 10:18 PM

Sen. Daniel K. Akaka is starting his fourth year as chairman of the Senate subcommittee on the federal workforce. It promises not to be like the last.

Being chairman of the subcommittee this year means taking the point for Democrats as they deal with a beefed-up crew of Republicans who see budget cuts when they view a workforce that Akaka (D-Hawaii) has long championed.

"Senator Akaka's advocacy on behalf of federal employees has been heroic," said Beth Moten, legislative director of the American Federation of Government Employees. ". . . His leadership on our issues becomes all the more important because we expect to see the House pass a number of measures that are harmful to federal workers."

In each of the past two years, Akaka's voting record has been rated 100 percent by the National Treasury Employees Union, said NTEU President Colleen M. Kelley.

Before the Republicans took over the House last month, Akaka's counterpart on that side of Capitol Hill was a like-minded Democrat. Now the chairman of the House subcommittee, Rep. Dennis A. Ross (R-Fla.), is a tea party Republican whose top priority is reducing the cost of the federal payroll.

Akaka has shown that he can work with Republicans, although he may be used to a more moderate type. He was very close to George V. Voinovich, the retired senator from Ohio who was the top Republican on the subcommittee last year and the chairman before Akaka. "George Voinovich is my dear friend and brother," Akaka told us last month.

It will fall to Akaka, the first senator of Native Hawaiian descent and a World War II veteran who witnessed the attack on Pearl Harbor, to fend off moves against the workforce that federal labor unions and Democrats, generally, believe go too far. At the same time, he is not of a mind to try to overturn President Obama's two-year federal pay freeze, something that federal employees would like to happen.

With the Senate still reorganizing, Akaka doesn't know when the subcommittee will hold its first hearing. The panel's Web site still lists as members some people, including Voinovich, who aren't in the Senate anymore. When the panel does get going, Akaka plans to focus on issues that "raise the efficiency and effectiveness and the quality of federal workers."

Encouraging workers, particularly those at the State and Homeland Security departments, to study foreign languages and cultures is one of his priorities.

He spoke with the Federal Diary about some of the issues his panel and federal employees will face this year. His edited remarks are in italic below.

On a Republican plan to freeze federal pay for five years, instead of the two now in effect, and to cut the workforce by 15 percent through attrition, he said:

"I think is short shortsighted. When we talk about cutting federal employees, I think [the GOP proposal] was done in a general way and not specific. For example, if we cut 15 percent of [Internal Revenue Service funding], you can't collect the revenues that we could [otherwise]. As a matter of fact, we need to increase the number of federal employees there to be able to collect the millions of dollars we cannot collect because we do not have the employees. I think before just cutting willy-nilly 15 percent, I think we need to analyze and study and evaluate the employees."

But protecting federal employees from the Republican legislative agenda doesn't mean that Akaka will always fall in line with labor leaders. He wouldn't come right out and say a pay freeze repeal is going nowhere, but almost:

"Since [Obama] mentioned two years, I think we should use that period of time to see what we should do next."

Are the union hopes of overturning the freeze a non-starter?

"I realize what we are facing when we are talking about the deficit. I think we need to work this out together with the president."

Akaka said he hopes to work with Republicans on good-government legislation, particularly one measure that he has long advocated.

"Hopefully, we can in a bipartisan manner try to work on these bills that we will be facing, in particular when it comes to good government management. I hope that we will be able to pass some of them. One of them I'm thinking about is the whistleblower bill. It passed the Senate, but in the final minute we lost it. I really believe the whistleblowers can help us cut the deficit, save tax dollars by disclosing waste, fraud and abuse in the workplace.

"We're going to have to try to make a huge effort to try and pass the bill again."

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