With Congress considering so many ways to make the lives of federal employees more difficult, even small, symbolic efforts to recognize them are notable, even when they’re dead.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has approved legislation that would allow agencies to present an American flag to the families of federal employees who are killed while on duty or because of their status as a government employee.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the committee, said he was pleased the panel considered the Civilian Service Recognition Act of 2011“especially since they received so much negative attention and criticism recently for simply doing their jobs.”

The bill stands in contrast to unrelated proposals that would extend the federal pay freeze, make employees pay more for health and retirement benefits, cut the federal workforce and allow workers to be fired if they are seriously behind on their federal taxes.

Cummings said that many people probably don’t realize that since 2001, more than “35,000 federal civilian employees have been deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and other combat-related zones in support of ongoing military missions, political and economic development efforts, and state reconstruction projects. 

“Given the risk posed by some of these assignments, I think it’s only fitting that . . . employees who lose their lives in performance of their official duties be furnished and presented with a U.S. flag in the same manner as a flag bestowed upon a deceased member of the Armed Services.”

The Office of Personnel Management said that since 1992, almost 3,000 federal employees have been killed at work.

The legislation, which was sponsored by Rep. Richard L. Hanna (R-N.Y.), was approved by voice vote and sent to the full House for consideration.

“I strongly support this bipartisan legislation,” said Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.).

Civilians in war zones

With all the talk about reducing the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s easy to overlook the increasing number of federal civilians deployed in those war zones.

A key element of that deployment is the level of security provided to the civilian workforce as the military withdraws. Unfortunately, diplomatic security training is not where it needs to be, according to testimony submitted for a Senate hearing Wednesday afternoon.

Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Senate federal workforce subcommittee, said a Government Accountability Office report released at the hearing makes it clear that the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security “is doing a remarkable job preparing its people to provide robust security in an unpredictable environment.”

But problems remain.

The report says: “Diplomatic Security faces significant ongoing challenges to carrying out its training mission, including (1) an increasing number of training missions in Iraq, (2) a potential increase in the number of students it has to train, and (3) inadequate training facilities.”

One factor is that the State Department continues to operate “in locations where, in the past, when faced with similar threats, we likely would have closed the post and evacuated all personnel,” said Eric J. Boswell, an assistant secretary of state.

The scope of the issue was put in perspective by Susan Johnson, president of the American Foreign Service Association. She said the Bureau of Diplomatic Security will be responsible for 17,000 diplomats and contractors at 15 locations across Iraq.

Training for an operation of that scale means the Diplomatic Security training center’s job is a tough and rapidly changing one. It must train personnel in subjects that until now were the responsibility of the military; subjects that the GAO said Diplomatic Security “has had little or no experience in providing, including downed aircraft recovery, explosives ordnance disposal, and rocket and mortar countermeasures, among others.”

Based on her service as a diplomat, Johnson praised Diplomatic Security as she began her testimony, but she also raised several questions, including:

l “How can the State Department effectively operate in difficult security environments without the support of the American military?

l “Is the scope of the mission in Iraq compatible with the resources available, including State Department capacity, the financial commitment from Congress, a degree of U.S. military support, and the backing of the Iraqi government?

l “If these elements are not fully in place, will the administration choose to scale back the diplomatic mission? Or will it accept a degree of physical risk familiar to military personnel but normally unacceptable for diplomats?”

There is a new normal for diplomats, as Boswell indicated when he said diplomats now serve in dangerous and risky locations that would have been evacuated previously. That’s directly linked to Johnson’s question about risk, a particularly important question because the military is trained — and armed — to face dangerous risks, but civilian employees are not.

Increasingly, however, they will face those risks anyway.

Follow the Federal Diary on Twitter: @joedavidsonwp.