Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) is clear on what a Democratic majority in the House next year will mean for the federal workforce:
“First of all, I think the hostility to federal employees and their … unions will end.”
Connolly is in position to do something about that. He’s prepped to be chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on government operations, after serving as its ranking Democrat.
In addition to the workforce, the subcommittee’s jurisdiction includes federal contractors, the U.S. Postal Service, federal IT management, Metro and more — issues of prime importance to the DMV. While that could change, Connolly will continue to have a strong hand in issues affecting federal employees. His Northern Virginia district has many, and lots of contractors, too.
We spoke with Connolly about the House Democratic takeover in the 116th Congress and his priorities as the subcommittee-chairman-in-waiting. His comment about hostility toward federal workers and their unions was right on time.
Three federal unions sued the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) last week over its “Notice of Repudiation.” The day after Election Day, VA unilaterally repudiated parts of collective bargaining agreements that allowed medical professionals to use “official time,” claiming it “negatively impacts direct patient care.”
Federal law allows individuals to participate in defined workplace activities in their capacity as union leaders while being paid by the government. They are prohibited from internal union business while on official time and must represent the entire bargaining unit, not just union members. Republicans have long sought to cut official time, which is a target of President Trump’s aggression toward federal labor organizations.
But Connolly has reminded him that “this administration cannot eviscerate United States law by fiat.”
As chairman of the subcommittee, he would have more authority to ensure that doesn’t happen.
“We believe strongly that federal employees need to be respected and their rights in the workplace upheld and strengthened,” Connolly said. “So, we’ll take a very different approach than that which has characterized the Republican leadership … I think you’ll see a reversal on a lot of fronts,” including GOP hits on federal workplace rights and compensation. “I think that will have practical consequences that are good for federal employees. I think that’s a big change.”
VA’s action attempts to skirt Trump’s May 25 executive orders seeking to eviscerate union influence. The directives have largely been blocked by a federal court order, which the administration is appealing.
“Legislation to overturn President Trump’s three executive orders aimed at making it impossible for federal unions to represent their members, and essentially rendering the federal government an at-will employer” is at the top of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers federal workforce agenda.
When the orders were issued, the administration said they made it “easier for agencies to remove poor-performing employees and ensure that taxpayer dollars are more efficiently used."
Connolly is wary of the administration’s goal and doubtful about its method.
“I think the Congress can certainly assert itself” and oppose Trump’s workforce actions, Connolly said. “We’re not at all convinced that all of this can be done by executive order. And I think we’re prepared to challenge that, including in court if we have to.”
He also challenges the administration’s right to reorganize federal agencies, including the suggested privatization of the Postal Service, without congressional approval.
“If you want to reorganize the federal government. You come to Congress with a proposal for its consideration,” he said. “That is the regular order of things.”
His focus on civil service protections, compensation and labor organizations is supported by union leaders.
“We expect the House to demonstrate its respect for the apolitical civil service and the union rights of federal employees,” said American Federation of Government Employees President J. David Cox Sr. “We are also counting on the House and the Senate to resist the administration’s efforts to undermine federal pay, retirement, and health insurance benefits.”
Among other issues, Connolly expects the committee to probe the administration’s decision to add a citizenship question on the next census. “Oh, absolutely,” there will be hearings on that, he said with emphasis. “And I would expect subpoenas to flow” to determine how that decision was made, he added.
On the civil service reform front, Teresa W. Gerton, president and chief executive of the National Academy of Public Administration, wants Congress to fund training and encourage agencies to be more flexible in the use of personnel management tools “so that they can manage their workforce in a way that supports their mission while still upholding merit principles.”
Democrats, Connolly said, are “certainly willing to consider meaningful reforms that make government more efficient and make it take the hiring process a little easier.”
But they won’t support efforts that are “simply designed to shrink the federal workforce and further constrain the rights of federal employees in the workplace. If that’s the agenda under the guise of reform, we’re not going to cooperate, we’re going to resist.”
“We’ve seen nothing but attempts to rein in the rights of the workers …” he added, “and that makes us obviously quite suspicious as to motives.”