The Washington Post

Federal-worker flag salute won’t fly


A seemingly innocuous piece of bipartisan legislation that would provide an inexpensive flag-draped patriotic gesture is drawing right-wing opposition because the honor would go to federal civilian employees.

The legislation would authorize the presentation of American flags at the funerals of federal workers killed in the line of duty, much like is done for members of the military. It was expected to pass easily when it was scheduled for a vote in the House last week.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about federal government and workplace issues that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. Davidson previously was an assistant city editor at The Washington Post and a Washington and foreign correspondent with The Wall Street Journal, where he covered federal agencies and political campaigns. View Archive

“Every year federal civilian employees are killed at home and abroad doing their duty for our nation,” said Rep. Richard L. Hanna (R-N.Y.), a sponsor of the bill. “The American flag embodies the values of our nation that these individuals worked to uphold. This legislation would provide a modest, but significant, benefit in honor of these dedicated individuals who sacrificed on our behalf.”

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.), the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said he was glad Congress considered the bill “pertaining to our dedicated federal workforce, especially since they have received so much negative attention and criticism recently for simply doing their jobs.”

But as my colleague Eric Yoder reported, the bill stalled at the last minute, after Hanna could not attend the House session and, significantly, the American Legion denounced the bill.

Now the right-wing blogosphere has gone beyond the potentially fixable problems the Legion has with the legislation, with calls for conservatives to fight it.

While bill supporters are rallying against the Legion’s actions, the influence of the right -wing bloggers represents another hurdle. It was erected primarily by a article by Erick Erickson. Its headline: “The Flags for Bureaucrats Act.”

Providing the flag to civilians, he wrote, means “it becomes just another trapping of power from the federal government available to all those people in the ever expanding federal bureaucracy.”

Erickson’s article has bounced around the Internet, along with his instruction: “Conservatives should oppose it.”

The Legion opposed the bill for several reasons, one of which is misleading.

“Civil service workers do not sign a pledge to defend America with their lives,” said Fang Wong, the Legion’s national commander, in a news release.

The truth is that the oath civilians and members of the military swear says they will “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”

That’s included in a point-by-point reply to the Legion penned by Terry Newell, who was an originator of the flag idea. Newell, by the way, is an Air Force veteran and spent 32 years as a civilian federal worker.

Here are some other points made by the Legion and Newell’s responses, which were sent to supporters and a few congressional offices.

Legion: “The bill is a misguided attempt to equate civil service with military service.”

Newell: Not so. The civilians would get only a flag. Burial in a national cemetery would not be authorized, as is the case for members of the military. Neither are honor guards or 21-gun salutes for civilians. The bill “authorizes the presentation of a United States flag at the funeral of federal civilian employees who are killed while performing official duties or because of their status as a federal employee.”

Simply dying on duty isn’t enough. An employee has to be killed.

Legion: “This bill leaves far too much to be determined by a few individuals.”

Newell: “It does allow some discretion in saying that regulations must ‘consider the conditions and circumstances surrounding the death of an employee and the nature of the service of the employee,’ but this language was added specifically to give the head of the agency discretion NOT to provide a flag in instances where it is not warranted.”

Legion: “It doesn’t clearly identify associated costs.”

Newell: “Since a flag costs about $60 retail, and mailing or delivering it cannot cost much more . . . it is hard to imagine a caisson, 21-gun salute or honor guard, all suggested as possible by the American Legion statement, as being ‘incident’ expenses.. . . There is nothing in the bill or its history that even suggests such honors.”

The Congressional Budget Office says the legislation “would have no significant impact on the federal budget.”

A statement from Hanna’s office said he “takes the Legion’s concerns very seriously, and discussions are ongoing as to when and how the bill may be brought back up for a vote.”

If the right-wing bloggers don’t derail it first.

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