Should the federal government pay employees for the time they spend on union activities?

Before you answer, consider some of the information that will be examined during a House subcommittee hearing Wednesday afternoon.

The hearing marks a continuation of the House federal workforce subcommittee’s practice of targeting issues in which Republicans feel federal workers have an unfair advantage or are costing taxpayers too much money.

Although “official time,” as it is called, really doesn’t cost much, the hearing is an example of the wide divide in the way Democrats and Republicans approach issues involving federal workers, public employee unions and the role of government.

Republicans control the House and are using their power to raise concerns that have been stuck in their craw for years. To Democrats, Republicans have concocted a problem where there is none and then proposed a solution for the problem they made up.

First, the definition.

“Official time” allows the government to pay the wages of employees while they are doing some union work. It is a practice allowed by law. Internal union business, including elections and conventions, are not covered, and union officials can’t use official time to pursue lawsuits against the government.

Labor representatives can use official time to participate in labor-management workshops, represent employees in meetings, negotiate contracts, implement workplace initiatives and represent workers in grievance and disciplinary proceedings.

The cost of salaries and benefits for union reps using official time was $129 million in fiscal year 2009, up 6.9 percent from the previous year. That sum is next to nothing for Uncle Sam. The Office of Personnel Management says it is less than two-tenths of 1 percent of the budget for employees covered by union contracts.

At the same time, the total hours spent on official time and the rate of official time per employee have declined significantly between fiscal years 2005 and 2009.

A May OPM report calls official time “a core component of the Federal government’s carefully crafted collective bargaining system.” Federal unions are required by law to represent all of the employees in a bargaining unit, even those who do not join the union or pay dues.

“Under this open shop arrangement, federal employee unions are also forbidden from collecting any fair-share payments or fees from non-members for the services which the union must provide,” John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said in testimony submitted to the House panel.

In exchange for those requirements, the government allows official time.

Gage says it’s a good deal. “Gains in quality, productivity, and efficiency — year after year, in department after department — simply would not have been possible without the reasonable and sound use of official time,” he said.

The top Democrat on the House panel, Rep. Stephen F. Lynch (Mass.), plans to defend official time as an important factor in saving agency dollars while promoting safety, efficiency and productivity.

But not everyone agrees.

Many Republicans and conservatives want it abolished or severely limited. Legislation introduced by Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) and co-sponsored by Rep. Dennis A. Ross (R-Fla.), the chairman of the subcommittee, would stop the use of official time.

F. Vincent Vernuccio, labor policy counsel for the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institut e, said, “Congress should repeal its usage and end the public’s subsidy of government union activity.”

In Vernuccio’s view, “official time does not represent good value for taxpayers and does not serve the public interest. . . . Taxpayers should not be forced to subsidize union activity.”

But while the cost of union time is up, the amount of time spent on official time is falling. In fiscal 2005, when Republican George W. Bush was president, 3.2 hours of official time were spent per bargaining-unit employee, according to the OPM report. That fell to 2.58 hours in fiscal 2009, most of which was under President Obama, a Democrat. During the same period, the total official time hours fell from 3.3 million to 2.9 million.

The report doesn’t explain why the use of official time has declined. Maybe it’s because unions have less to complain about when their allies are in office. Whatever the reason, if the trend continues, perhaps Republicans who want to reduce or end official time should support a Democrat for the White House.