Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) chairs the powerful House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which oversees the federal workforce and management issues. Last month he outlined a sweeping agenda that could result in congressional action on topics ranging from firing feds faster to changing the retirement system for new hires and possibly giving some workers pay raises.
Sitting next to him on the committee-room dais is the panel’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.). They have a good working relationship, and the committee is a more cooperative and collegial place under their leadership than it was when Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) was chairman.
Yet, Chaffetz and Cummings can also have strong disagreements — over the federal workforce, for example. That was evident when we interviewed Cummings by email last week. Most of the questions focused on points raised by Chaffetz in a briefing last month. We also asked Cummings about an area of agreement he has with the chairman — the dubious ethical behavior of White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, who used her position to promote products sold under the brand of Ivanka Trump, President Trump’s daughter.
In a letter to the Office of Government Ethics, Cummings and Chaffetz asked it to review Conway’s statements and recommend “appropriate disciplinary action.”
“If a regular federal employee did what Kellyanne Conway did, he or she would probably be suspended for several days,” Cummings said in the interview. He cited agencies where employees could suffer a two-week suspension.
Speaking of suspending a federal employee who also happens to be a top Trump appointee, Cummings told ABC News on Sunday that Michael Flynn, the national security adviser, should have his security clearance suspended while allegations that he discussed sanctions before the inauguration with Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to Washington, then lied about it, are investigated.
Suspending and firing feds faster — regular folks, not Trump administration VIPs — has been a recurring theme among Republicans. It recently emerged in legislative proposals and in recommendations by advisers to Trump when he was a candidate.
“With millions of federal employees working across the country, there are bound to be cases in which disciplinary measures are warranted,” Cummings said. “There have been cases in which managers take too long to act, but often that’s because they fail to use existing tools — not because the law stood in their way. The solution is better training for managers on disciplinary procedures, as well as better funding and staffing for human resources departments.”
Chaffetz wants the federal retirement system to move away from a defined benefit system to a defined contribution system that he said would save the government money. Such a system, however, would probably mean an effective cut in compensation for feds through greater out-of-pocket costs for employees.
Cummings has vigorously, sometimes emotionally, fought against cuts in federal employee compensation.
Many federal employees “have chosen to forgo opportunities for higher-paying jobs in the private sector in order to serve the public,” he said. “Eliminating or reducing their pensions and gutting their pay would push skilled people out of the civil service and impair the recruitment of new talent.”
Following the private-sector practice in this area, as Republicans often have suggested, Cummings added, “is simply a race to the bottom.”
Trump has imposed a hiring freeze with certain exceptions. Chaffetz has praised federal workers while adding that “we have too many of them,” even though there are significantly fewer feds now, per capita, than in the 1960s.
“Experience tells us that a hiring freeze will harm efficiency and cost taxpayers more money, not less,” Cummings said.
“The effects of President Trump’s across-the-board hiring freeze will range from ineffective to harmful,” he said. “For example, this hiring freeze impacts offices of inspectors general — the very people who are tasked with rooting out waste, fraud and abuse, and saving taxpayer money. . . . The Social Security Administration is headquartered in my district, and a freeze there could hurt more than 60 million seniors who depend on getting their Social Security benefits on time. The freeze will also hurt our veterans and minorities because the federal government hires more veterans and minorities than the private sector.”
Although Republicans have been associated with attempts to lower federal employee compensation, through plans such as changes to the retirement system, Chaffetz said that “there are some areas where we are probably going to have to pay people more money,” including cybersecurity experts.
Cummings favors pay increases for the workforce “since they have given up about $182 billion in pay and benefits over the last few years to fund deficit reduction and other government programs.” But he said he is “not sure how Republicans plan to fund increased pay for a group of federal employees without impacting the pay and benefits of other employees.”
Cummings said Chaffetz’s plan to go “full throttle” in seeking documents related to Hillary Clinton’s time as secretary of state “is another example of Chairman Chaffetz looking backwards at the Obama administration instead of conducting oversight over the most pressing national security challenges this country is facing. Chairman Chaffetz has refused to investigate President Trump’s conflicts of interest and Russian interference with our democratic elections, but looking at Secretary Clinton’s emails somehow remains a priority.”
“We are in an extremely target-rich environment for oversight, and as the chairman points out repeatedly, we are a committee of unlimited jurisdiction. Chairman Chaffetz has stated he wasn’t going to be a ‘cheerleader’ for this administration, but remaining entirely silent is also not an option,” Cummings added. “It’s ironic that Chairman Chaffetz wants to continue investigating Hillary Clinton — who is now a private citizen — but won’t investigate President Donald Trump. . .. There is no doubt whatsoever that our committee has direct jurisdiction over the president’s conflicts of interest. The public demand for this investigation has been incredible, but Chairman Chaffetz would rather resurrect partisan attacks on Hillary Clinton.”