Daniel K. Akaka has a choice spot in the Hart Senate Office Building. His corner office has high ceilings, tall windows and great light.
But now it feels a little sad.
Walls are bare. Moving boxes line the hallways. The sense that an era is ending is thick.
The goodbye is underway.
Akaka, a senator from Hawaii for 22 years and a member of Congress for 36, is going home. And with his departure, the federal workforce is losing a friend on Capitol Hill.
“I would love to have 99 more exactly like him,” said J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees.
Akaka is retiring at the end of this session and trading the stress and tension of Capitol Hill for the delightful climate of an island in the Pacific. A big part of the reason is to be with his family after decades working a 12-hour flight from home.
“These years have brought along grandchildren and great-grandchildren,” said Akaka, 88. “I felt it was important that they get to know me and I get to know them and to get back with my friends in Hawaii. So I’m looking forward to that.”
He also can look back at a career of solid accomplishments, including, among other things, a strong history of support for federal employees. As chairman of the Senate federal workforce subcommittee, Akaka has been a persistent, yet quiet, force working to better government service to taxpayers by improving the federal service.
“We need to work on making the federal government the employer of choice,” he said, citing the need for better training.
The government remains a good place to work, but with all the hits on compensation and the potshots employees must dodge from Capitol Hill and elsewhere, it can be a headache, too.
Do feds have reason to feel they are under attack?
“Yes,” he says emphatically.
He is critical of his colleagues for “using the federal workforce as a piggy bank. Whenever there is a shortfall, the federal workers are taking cuts. We’re trying to eliminate that. I believe in sharing the costs of government and that the federal workers and their families should not always be targeted. We need to look at the millionaires who are receiving tax breaks as well as loopholes.”
Akaka demonstrated his support for federal employees when he voted against a postal reform bill he largely supported because of its workers compensation provisions.
“Unfortunately, I cannot support a bill that cuts benefits for federal employees who have been injured in service to their country,” he said at the time. “It is simply cruel to change the rules after the fact for disabled employees who were relying on the promise of these benefits. I’m disappointed my amendment to fix this issue was defeated.”
When federal pay and benefits are targeted, Akaka said, federal workers and their representatives “should have something to say about it.”
Those workers often turned to Akaka to speak for them.
“Throughout his lengthy congressional career, Senator Daniel Akaka has not only been a stalwart friend of federal employees, he has been a most effective advocate on their behalf,” said Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union. “His extensive understanding of issues important to federal workers served as the underpinning of his many successful legislative efforts.”
Among the successes that make Akaka proud is the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act, which President Obama signed into law Tuesday. Akaka, chief sponsor of the law, worked for years to get it passed. “That has been big for me,” he said.
Also high on his list of accomplishments are the Non-Foreign Area Retirement Equity Assurance Act, which provided mainland equity in pay and retirement for federal workers in Hawaii and Alaska and other places outside of the 48 states, and his work on improving the federal hiring process.
“Senator Akaka has had a significant role in every workforce bill to emerge from Congress over the last decade,” said Max Stier, president and chief executive of Partnership for Public Service. “His common sense, bipartisanship and work ethic will be missed — and let’s not overlook that he is one of the nicest, most genial members of the Senate. He’s not flashy, but he is immensely substantive.”
The bipartisanship was evident in his relationship with Sen. George V. Voinovich of Ohio, the top Republican on the workforce subcommittee when he retired two years ago. They called each other “brother.” They attended subcommittee meetings when no other members did. While members of Congress routinely refer to colleagues as “my good friend,” Akaka and Voinovich really meant it when speaking about each other.
Akaka talks a lot about “trying to eliminate the fences” that hamper communication and cooperation in the federal government. “I’ve seen progress in that area” but not in Congress, he said. With the acrimony between Senate Democrats and Republicans, “it has moved towards being dysfunctional,” he said.
Akaka won’t have to worry with that soon, at least not anymore than the rest of us. He leaves a big spot to fill.
“All of us look up to him as an alaka’i — leader — who is pono — acts with righteousness,” John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management, said by e-mail. “Life both in Hawai’i and across America is better for his service. The people of Hawai’i, the Federal workforce, and I, personally, want to say mahalo nui loa, a big thank you, from the bottom of our hearts.
“He will be sorely missed.”
Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.