Thursday’s hearing might have been the first shot for this Congress, but it’s not likely the last.
Two House subcommittees joined forces for Republicans to hit what they consider to be abuses of “official time.” That system allows government labor organization officials to engage in certain, but certainly not all, union-related activities while being paid by federal agencies.
Federal employees and their representatives can expect other actions affecting the workforce, in fact those actions have already begun.
Thursday marked the first hearing, but President Trump earlier imposed a temporary hiring freeze. Just before Trump took office, House Republicans reinstated the long dormant Holman Rule that permits Congress to strip the pay of individual federal employees.
Official time has long been a Republican target. But now, Republicans know they have a better chance at success because they have a friend in the White House, albeit a mercurial one.
Federal union leaders know it too.
They and their Democratic allies in Congress are fighting back, but they have a difficult battle. On the official time question, for example, no matter how often they point out that official time is used for such things as improving productivity and resolving workplace problems, Republicans narrowly and inaccurately cast it as a system allowing union people to do union business on the taxpayer’s dime.
The hearing by the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on government operations and the House Veterans’ Affairs economic opportunity subcommittee focused on official time in the Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA is an easy target and not just because it is still spinning from the scandal that broke in 2014 over the coverup of long patient wait times. The VA also accounted for about one-third of all the federal government hours spent on official time from 2008 to 2012, according to a Government Accountability Office report that cited Office of Personnel Management (OPM) statistics.
One more thing makes the VA an easy target — poor bookkeeping.
GAO found the VA “could not accurately track the amount of time its employees spend on official time at the VA agency-wide,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the oversight subcommittee. “With the VA taking up one-third of the official time for the entire federal government, it’s important that it employs accurate methods to calculate and records to show how much time we’re spending on those union activities.”
In the report released at the hearing, GAO said VA’s data “were not sufficiently reliable to determine the amount of official time used by VA employees and the purposes for which it was used.”
Meadows said OPM statistics indicate “345 VA employees spent all of their time engaged on union activities … so they were essentially full time on official time. That means that 345 VA employees spent all of their time engaged on union activities.”
William Kovacs III, also known as Trey, a policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, has suggested using the Holman Rule to “simply get rid of federal employees who spend 100 percent of their work hours on labor union business instead of actual government work.” He testified at Thursday’s hearing, but this statement was taken from his January article in the Hill.
But what Kovacs calls “union business” also benefits non-union members and agency missions.
Using official time for strictly union business, such as soliciting members, internal union meetings and union elections, is prohibited, J. David Cox Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), told the hearing. AFGE represents VA staffers.
The GAO report shows that most VA managers and union officials surveyed agreed that official time was beneficial in improving agency decision-making, resolving problems and improving relationships — all items that help productivity.
“The reasonable use of official time provides the means, not only in DVA [Department of Veterans Affairs] but also throughout the federal government by which employees and their elected representatives participate in the improvement of DVA services,” Cox said.
Democrats on the panel also stressed the importance of official time in protecting whistleblowers, a group of federal employees politicians of both parties make a point of supporting.
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) made that point with a video of Michelle Washington. As a VA psychologist, she suffered retaliation after her Senate testimony about poor conditions at the VA hospital in Wilmington, Del. Connolly read a letter from her that said: “‘If official time had not been available to the AFGE representatives we may not have been able to defend my case. It would have set a precedent that management can retaliate without consequence.’”
Added Connolly: “I am certain that my colleagues do not intend to disadvantage whistleblowers, but the effect of their concerted attacks on unions and civil service protections would be to strip whistleblowers of their advocates in the workplace — their union.”
That seems to be the point.