Although he’s probably better known as a car salesman than a congressman, Don Beyer’s roots run deep among federal employees.
A Democrat representing Northern Virginia’s 8th Congressional District, Beyer has been in Congress only about six months, so the “Rep.” before his name might not be as well known yet as the car dealerships that carry his name.
Nonetheless, Beyer identifies as much as a federal employee as he does as a successful businessman.
“Three of my four grandparents were federal employees,” he proudly tells federal workers, a line he repeated during an interview with the Federal Diary. We wanted to find out how this new member of Congress approaches federal employee issues. He is quick to tell them, as his Web site says, “more than 76,000 federal employees call the 8th Congressional District home, a greater number than most states.”
His grandmother, who had the greatest longevity as a fed, was a Labor Department employee for 35 years. Citing “family lore,” he said she knew Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt well and moved to the U.S. Agency for International Development where she retired, “kicking and screaming,” at age 80.
One grandfather was a National Mediation Board official before joining the old War Department. Beyer’s maternal granddad was a lawyer with the Interior Department. Beyer’s father was a West Point grad and a career Army officer.
Beyer’s own federal career began as a GS-7 with the National Park Service at the Lincoln Memorial. Years later he led President-elect Obama’s Commerce Department transition team. He hoped that volunteer gig would be rewarde with an appointment as an assistant secretary. It wasn’t.
“I was a little disappointed,” Beyer recalled. “Then the White House called and said ‘Do you want to go overseas?’” Obama appointed him ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein, a pretty good plum for a campaign supporter. He served there from August 2009 until May 2013.
“It’s a great job,” he said. His fond recollections of the post are demonstrated by the antique maps of Switzerland on the wall of his fourth floor suite in the Cannon House Office Building. Another indication of a Beyer passion is the pair of sturdy Mammut hiking boots and a sign about the Appalachian Trail. He’s section hiking the trail, which runs about 2,180 miles from Maine to Georgia. So far, he’s covered 1,212 miles since he began in 2002.
After joining Congress in January, he seemed pleasantly surprised that he did “not hear any, or very little, overt hostility or overt disrespect” for federal employee. “I’ve not yet been in a committee meeting where members of Congress were trashing federal employees’ work ethic or capability.”
But there’s another side to that.
“I also haven’t sensed any commitment to raising employee pay significantly,” he said. “The whole idea of elevating the professional status of federal employees, that’s been missing…. I don’t want to be partisan about it, but the budget, the federal budget the Republicans passed in both houses very much reflects, I think, an unwillingness to recognize the importance of federal employees for getting the job done.”
Beyer wants to recognize them with a pay raise significantly greater than the 1.3 percent Obama has proposed. He has co-sponsored legislation, offered by Rep. Gerald Connolly, a Democrat who represents a neighboring Virginia district, which would give them a 3.8 percent boost in 2016. Another priority is the Federal Employees Paid Parental Leave Act, introduced in January by Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), which would provide six weeks of paid leave at the birth, adoption or foster placement of a child.
Realistically, the pay hike measure is going nowhere.
“It’s hard to be optimistic about it right now,” he concedes. “We need to have fought for it this year to make it more plausible next year and the year after. A lot of these things are going to require patience.”
He worries about a federal government that is top-heavy with older folks eligible to retire and agencies that are not attractive to young professionals. He wants to “elevate public service as a fulfilling, meaningful way to spend your professional life.”
Pay is part of that, but not all of it. “Some of it is respect,” he said.
Feds need to be told and shown “what you do is important,” he added.
But when feds mess up, as some do, that makes it harder for the rest. Shortly before the interview an inspector general released a report about a “culture of complacency” at the Environmental Protection Agency. The Washington Post headline said “Watchdog: EPA managers let workers get away with timesheet fraud, watching porn at work.”
Issues like this are “disastrous” when people like Beyer try to develop public policies for feds, he said.
“If you are from one of those states with relatively few federal employees and the impression is left they are faking time cards and watching porn,” he said, “you are not going to be very inclined to give them a pay raise… Those are very unhelpful things.”