At a House hearing this month on fraud and waste in pandemic aid, some Republicans zeroed in on one group in particular for criticism: the federal employees overseeing the money.
That sentiment is animating a newly empowered GOP House majority eager to ramp up scrutiny of the army of civil servants who run the government’s day-to-day operations. The effort includes seeking testimony from middle- and lower-level workers who are part of what Republicans have long derided as the “deep state,” while some lawmakers are drafting bills that have little chance of passing the Democrat-led Senate but give Republicans a chance to argue for reining in the federal bureaucracy of 2.1 million employees.
In recent weeks, House Republicans have passed legislation requiring federal employees to return to the office, arguing that pandemic rules have bled into a permanent state that diminishes productivity. Lawmakers have voted to rescind $80 billion for the cash-starved IRS to hire 87,000 employees in customer service, technology and audit roles to increase tax compliance of those earning more than $400,000 — claiming the extra staff will unfairly target taxpayers. They’ve allowed House members to reduce or eliminate federal agency programs or slash the salaries of individual employees on a quick vote.
A newly formed Judiciary Committee panel led by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), meanwhile, has already issued subpoenas to agency heads and alerted the Biden administration to impending requests for testimony from multiple mid-level career employees on contentious issues. And House Republican leaders have told almost all of their committees to come up with plans by March to slash spending and beef up oversight of federal agencies in their jurisdiction.
Unions and others who advocate for federal workers are bracing for still more friction, including proposals to reduce or eliminate cost-of-living adjustments to wages and shave the government’s share of health insurance premiums or retirement benefits. Rep. Chip Roy (R-Tex.) introduced legislation in January to transform the entire civil service into at-will jobs with scant protections.
Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), chairman of the newly renamed House Oversight and Accountability Committee, says he is not out to “pick on federal workers,” but rather to ensure that poor performers face repercussions and to push the hundreds of thousands of employees still working from home back into the office to improve service to the public. The increasing share of telework the Biden administration encouraged as the country emerges from the coronavirus pandemic has made many public-facing agencies less responsive, Comer said in an interview.
“It’s gotten so bad, just trying to get somebody on the phone,” he said, of trying to reach service representatives at agencies. “They’re so far behind. So, you know, it’s hard to argue that teleworking has helped the VA or the IRS or the Social Security.” Comer said he will demand that agencies “start measuring productivity. Give us some data to prove that having 47% of the workforce teleworking is better for the taxpayer.”
The clash over federal workers is likely to deepen, observers say, as Republican allies of former president Donald Trump carry forward his historic assault on the civil service. A party long skeptical of government workers is starting to exert pressure on civil servants for the first time in the four years since the party lost control of the House.
“The messaging now is broad-brush, but these are public servants,” said Max Stier, president and chief executive of the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service. “These lawmakers are representing Americans who, if the government stops investing, will get worse service. It’s cutting off your nose to spite your face.”
Democrats and advocates for career civil servants denounce the GOP’s moves as familiar attacks — and warn that they can still do real damage. Rather than targeting the workforce, Democrats say, accountability efforts should address long-running issues such as the civil service’s drawn-out hiring process and the challenge in attracting young employees to government work.
“Essentially, they want to wage war on the federal workforce — with the possible exception of certain parts of the military,” Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, said in an interview. He took issue with the rhetoric “of all of these [new House] oversight vehicles” that the Biden administration has “weaponized” the government: “Weaponization of the government is not their target — weaponization of the government is their purpose.”
While in the White House, Trump summarily fired multiple inspectors general and tried to purge several career diplomats and others who testified against him during his first impeachment hearings. But his efforts to dramatically shrink the federal workforce and limit its protections were largely unsuccessful. While Trump laid the groundwork for a policy that could strip civil service protections from tens of thousands of career employees deemed resistant to his plans, his administration ran out of time to carry it through.
Biden — who ran as an ally to federal employee unions — shelved that rule, known as Schedule F, in the first days of his presidency. His administration has prioritized replenishing the ranks of many agencies where career employees retired or quit during the Trump era and restoring damaged alliances with the unions, in part by granting generous telework policies.
But conservatives say Biden’s ties to labor have led to complacency as some agencies have struggled to restore operations to pre-pandemic levels. Republican leaders say that’s their priority now.
Comer has issued letters to agency heads, among them outgoing Labor Secretary Marty Walsh (to produce documents on pandemic fraud), General Services Administrator Robin Carnahan (to document her time spent in D.C.) and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas (to allow Border Patrol officials to testify at hearings on illegal border crossings). He says he will call Food and Drug Administration officials to testify to the agency’s “slow” pace of medical device reviews during the pandemic while its attention was diverted by coronavirus vaccines.
“Agencies in this administration are not effectively governing and not faithfully executing their duties to the needs of the American people across the board,” said Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Tex.), chairman of a new House Oversight subcommittee focused on government operations and the federal workforce, in an interview. “The government is still stuck right now in terms of acting as though we were still in covid response. That ended a year ago.”
One of Comer’s first letters to the Biden administration after taking over as chairman of the House Oversight panel went to Office of Personnel Management Director Kiran Ahuja, citing a Government Accountability Office audit that revealed that the government is spending up to $1 billion per year on health benefits for ineligible federal employees.
“Imagine the levels of waste, fraud and abuse that OPM could already have uncovered and corrected if it had in place during each relevant year adequate verification, monitoring and auditing requirements for the [health benefits] program,” Comer wrote. He asked Ahuja for documents, communications and a briefing to committee staff on the improper benefits.
Jordan, meanwhile, has said his Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government would focus initial inquiries on the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the IRS.
Jordan, who led the GOP charge a decade ago when the party accused the IRS of unfairly targeting conservative groups, has made clear in requests previously sent to the Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security and other agencies that his committee expects testimony from line agents, attorneys and others named in its requests. He said at the panel’s first hearing this month that FBI agents have come forward as whistleblowers.
So far, he has issued three subpoenas in his effort to undermine the Justice Department’s probes of Trump, prove allegations of politicization and bias at the FBI and show the agency targeted parents who protested coronavirus policies at school board meetings — misconduct he has said was carried out by career employees.
The Biden administration has signaled that it won’t cooperate with GOP efforts to involve career employees in the hearings. In a letter issued by the Justice Department in response to Jordan’s requests, an assistant attorney general wrote that the department would refrain “from making line agents and line attorneys available for congressional testimony or interviews with the committee, in line with a long-standing policy to protect the privacy and safety of those working on investigations."
A Justice Department spokesperson declined to comment on the requests, instead pointing to an August quote from Attorney General Merrick Garland after an armed man was killed while trying to breach the FBI’s Cincinnati field office. “The men and women of the FBI and the Justice Department are dedicated, patriotic public servants,” Garland said at the time. “Every day, they protect the American people from violent crime, terrorism, and other threats to their safety, while safeguarding our civil rights.”
Action on the legislative front, meanwhile, is accelerating.
On Tuesday, House Republicans plan to advance bills that would pull federal employees into the dispute over claims that conservative views have been unfairly censored on social media. The bill would bar them from using their role to “engage in censorship.”
In one of its first acts in January, the House majority revived an arcane provision dating to the late 1800s known as the Holman Rule, which allows lawmakers to go after any federal employee or agency whose decision on policy they don’t like. The measure was used sparingly for more than two centuries until its reinstatement by Republicans in 2017. Democrats dropped it when they came back to power two years later.
Comer’s SHOW UP Act, meanwhile, directs federal agencies to document how the expansion of telework — now estimated to be used by about half of the workforce of 2.1 million — affected their mission, and mandates an analysis of any adverse effects work-from-home policies have had on customer service, network security and costs to federal agencies, including rent and mortgages for unoccupied buildings.
Republican leaders say they do not envision a new effort to revive Schedule F. Still, two Virginia Democrats reintroduced a bill this month to block any version of the policy becoming law, underscoring the tension between the parties where civil servants are concerned.
Even if their proposals related to federal employees are blocked in the Senate, House leaders say they hope to push some through during the budget appropriations process, when lawmakers in both parties make trade-offs to fund the government.
And while the bill to return telework to pre-pandemic levels probably won’t reach Biden’s desk, GOP leaders say they have other tools to force the issue. “We have the power of the purse,” Sessions said. “You make your decisions, we make ours, and the way we’ll deal with it is, sorry, we won’t give you the money you want.”
Conservatives also argue that any legislation this Congress that holds the federal workforce accountable would be valuable even if it is dead on arrival in the Senate or on Biden’s desk.
“There’s a lot of value to crafting legislative proposals for a time when the stars do align,” said James Sherk, an economist who coordinated labor policy for the White House Domestic Policy Council under Trump and now leads the Center for American Freedom at the America First Policy Institute. Any legislation will be valuable to take “off the shelf for a day when a Republican is in the White House. Rarely does legislation pass in a single Congress,” Sherk said.
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D), whose Northern Virginia district includes thousands of federal workers, counters that such symbolic efforts would damage the appeal of federal service at a time when large swaths of the workforce are eligible to retire and just 7 percent of federal employees are under 30. Attracting new talent should be a bipartisan priority for Congress, he said.
“We don’t have the same handicaps we did under Trump,” Connolly said, referring to the Schedule F effort and another ill-fated plan to blow up the Office of Personnel Management.
But he said House Republicans “can still score points by making government less attractive, and damage is done when you disparage federal employees just as we’re trying to make federal employment more attractive.”
Eric Yoder contributed to this report.