Rep. Jason Chaffetz has a quick smile and a relaxed, affable manner.
But behind those genial ways is a Glock 23 pistol-toting congressman.
Chaffetz, a Republican from Utah, will be chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee when the next Congress convenes in January. From that perch he will have broad authority to investigate the government and significant influence over the federal workforce.
He is enthusiastic about many things and particularly dogged about some. What he calls “bad apples” in the federal workforce would be on the relentless list.
He frames his discussion about federal workers by saying, “the overwhelming majority of federal employees are patriotic, hardworking people.”
But if he thinks you aren’t in that group, watch out.
“We have to be able to root out the bad apples,” he said during an interview. (By the way, there was no bulge under his coat as he sat on a couch on the fourth floor of the Rayburn House Office Building. He packs his pistol in Utah.)
Referring to delays in getting rid of a federal employee found looking at porn on the job, he first cites his “great respect” for unions, but asked, “Why are they so adamant about protecting somebody, some pervert infecting the greater good?
“I am adamant that we have to address that.”
Chaffetz would like to see the new expedited authority the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has to fire senior executive service members spread to other agencies. VA’s abbreviated process weighs heavily in favor of the agency, severely cuts due process for senior executives appealing demotions or terminations and prohibits further appeals to the presidentially appointed Merit Systems Protection Board.
Chaffetz says he will have an open door for federal employee unions and a couple of smaller employee organizations that supported his reelection. Although union leaders have opposed some of his policies, J. David Cox Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees, has praised Chaffetz for the congressman’s work on behalf ofBorder Patrol pay reform.
“Tearing down the unions is not part of my agenda,” Chaffetz said.
But Chaffetz doesn’t expect union leaders will agree to making it easier to fire their members. They likely will oppose plans to have future feds pay more for retirement benefits, which “is definitely on the list,” Chaffetz said.
He offered this to union leaders: “If they would come work with me on how to get rid of the bad apples, I’m going to be their biggest champion.”
Would Chaffetz like to see VA’s expedited firing process expanded to all senior executives and beyond to all federal employees?
“Yes, all of the above.
“In a bureaucracy as big as the federal government, you’re going to have some bad apples,” he added. Managers “need the tools to be able to fire them.”
Complaining about the more than 100,000 staffers who owe more than $1 billion in back federal taxes, he said officials should have the authority to dump feds with “seriously delinquent” tax debt.
If employees dispute a tax claim or have a payment plan, “of course we’re not going to lop your head off,” he said. For others, their heads could roll.
But wouldn’t that be counterproductive? As long as Uncle Sam employs the tax delinquents, he can garnish their wages to get the tax payments. Sam has no leverage over a fired person, who is jobless and without a means to pay the debt.
Furthermore, the tax delinquency rate for current and retired federal employees and active duty and retired military members is less than half the rate for the general population, according to previously released data from the Internal Revenue Service.
Chaffetz, however, said there are too many people “who want these coveted [federal] jobs” to allow tax scofflaws to keep them.
“I don’t trust that person,” he said, “if they are just thumbing their nose” at the government.
One person he does trust is Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the committee and a strong supporter of federal employees.
“I’ve got a really good working relationship with Elijah Cummings,” said Chaffetz, while acknowledging “there’s going to be a lot of contention,” but nothing personal.
They visited each other’s districts earlier this year. It was a learning, and perhaps bonding, experience for both. Cummings went to scenic Utah, including beautiful Arches National Park. Chaffetz went to Baltimore.
Cummings agreed they have a very good working relationship and said he hopes “we’ll get away from this bashing of federal employees” and concentrate on providing them the resources they need to do their jobs.
Cummings and the current chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), could be combative. Sometimes the anger at hearings was palpable. But with the gavel in Chaffetz’s hands, Cummings expects more cooperation between Republicans and Democrats on the panel.
“I think it will be much better,” Cummings said, “much better.”
Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.