House Republicans are jabbing federal employees in ways that could make their lives uncomfortable a little bit at a time.
Wednesday’s low-key drama in the Rayburn House Office Building was a good example. Room 2154 was the stage for votes in the morning and a matinee hearing on measures that taken together seemed to say: “We don’t trust feds.”
Individually, two pieces of legislation approved by the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and an afternoon subcommittee hearing on a workers’ comp program would not have a great impact on the daily lives of most federal workers.
But collectively, they represent a dramatic change in how the committee views the workforce it oversees. That change occurred when the GOP took over the House.
The Federal Employee Tax Accountability Act is a prime example.
The bill, approved by voice vote, would allow the government to fire federal employees who are significantly behind on their federal taxes.
Sponsored by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), the legislation says individuals with “seriously delinquent tax debts” are ineligible for federal employment. It would also apply to applicants.
His legislation attempts to be fair by excluding employees whose debt “is being paid in a timely manner” or who have requested a due process collection hearing.
Chaffetz is a sincere, affable, politically ambitious congressman who said at the morning session that “you cannot say enough good things” about the majority of federal employees. But workers who skirt taxes should be fired, he added.
Of course, the terminated might then have no money to pay their tax bills, no paycheck to garnish, but Congress would have sent a signal.
In reality, the sanction wouldn’t be much more than a symbol.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said IRS figures show that more than 96 percent of federal employees pay their taxes on time, a higher rate than the general public. And Chaffetz acknowledged that only 12,000 federal employees are in the ranks of the seriously delinquent.
Twelve thousand represents less than 1 percent of the more than 2 million federal employees.
So while the legislation would have almost no real impact, it does contribute to the anti-public employee attitude that is gaining speed in the House and in Republican-controlled state capitols.
“I think, frankly, the committee has engaged in a broad assault on federal employees in every aspect,” Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) said after the hearing. Why else, he asked, would the panel “spend hours and hours on a bill of such little import?”
The response from the office of Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.): “Congressman Connolly has a true talent for defending contractors and government employees who don’t pay their taxes,” said spokesman Frederick R. Hill.
Similar legislation regarding federal contractors also was approved by a voice vote.
The committee, with a vote along party lines, also advanced legislation that would provide a two-year probationary period for federal employees, instead of the one-year period that is the government standard. The bill was made more palatable when it was changed to have the two-year period apply only to new hires. Originally, the longer probation would have kicked in even when employees transferred. One-year probation, however, would continue to apply to veterans.
“By extending the probationary period, we are untying supervisors’ hands so that those that aren’t performing as well don’t stay in employment,” said Rep. Dennis A. Ross (D-Fla.), chairman of the federal workforce subcommittee.
Cummings pointed out that the legislation has not been the subject of a hearing, at which agency officials and employees could address the potential effects of the bill.
“We have not had a single piece of testimony,” he said.
A hearing actually would show that some federal employees like the bill. Ross read a letter from the Government Managers Coalition, which includes the Federal Managers Association and four other organizations, endorsing the measure. Labor leaders representing the rank and file oppose it.
No member of the committee explained what the rush was — why it didn’t hold a hearing where views of those affected could be heard. That added to a sense of whatever can be done to move on the bulk of federal workers should be done now.
After lunch, Ross’s subcommittee did hold a hearing on the Federal Employees Compensation Act, a workers’ compensation program for those who are injured. Ross said the program’s benefits are greater than federal retirement benefits, so “there exists a large incentive for federal workers to remain on FECA beyond the point when they otherwise would have returned to work or retired.”
That’s a valid point to consider. But figures released by the subcommittee indicate that it’s a very small problem. There are 14,500 workers past retirement age receiving payments, according to Ross’s panel. That’s out of more than 2 million workers.
Do the math.