The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform seemed poised to move beyond its reputation as a rancorous, partisan pit at its opening meeting of the 114th Congress on Tuesday.
That lasted about five minutes.
Despite chummy words between the panel’s top Republican and Democrat, the ghost of the chairman past seemed to hover, unseen but not unfelt, in the Rayburn House Office Building committee room.
The pleasantries quickly fell away as debate began on a controversial committee rule proposed by the new chairman, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah). It would allow him unilateral authority to issue subpoenas. Federal employees often were the target of subpoenas issued by the immediate past chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who was vilified by Democrats for a perceived abuse of subpoenas.
Maryland Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the panel, set the tone in an opening statement in which he declared that Issa’s tenure was “filled with acrimony, partisanship, and sometimes vulgar displays. They were a stain on this Committee’s integrity and an embarrassment to the House of Representatives.”
Issa’s office responded by saying the comment was “disappointing, but typical” for Cummings.
Republicans also did not defend him and largely remained quiet during the rules debate, knowing they had the votes to support Chaffetz no matter what Democrats said. The rules proposed by Chaffetz were approved on a partisan vote, just as an amendment by Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), to require that subpoenas have a committee vote or the concurrence of the ranking minority member, was defeated. Even if Democrats had won that vote, Republicans would maintain control of the committee’s subpoena power because they are in the majority.
Despite the partisan tussle over rules, this first meeting managed a good bipartisan start for one group of feds in particular — newly hired disabled veterans. On a voice vote, the committee unanimously approved the Wounded Warriors Federal Leave Act. It would allow most new federal employees with at least a 30 percent disability rating related to military service 104 hours of paid sick leave. That’s 13 work days. Generally, employees initially have no sick leave and earn hours as they work. Additional legislation is planned for the 15 percent of employees not covered.
“This lack of initial leave for new federal workers is particularly burdensome for those who are also wounded warriors and must make regular visits to the VA [Department of Veterans Affairs] in order to receive treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, severe physical injuries and other service-connected disabilities,” said Rep. Stephen F. Lynch (D-Mass.), who introduced the bill.
Quoting a Veterans of Foreign Wars statement, Lynch added: “ ‘This means that newly hired disabled veterans must choose between taking unpaid leave to seek care for their injuries or forgo receiving that care altogether.’ ”
Another test for the committee will be how it deals with the Federal Employees Paid Parental Leave Act, which would allow feds six weeks of paid leave at the birth or adoption of a child, or when a foster placement occurs.
Though the measure was not up for consideration at the meeting, its sponsor, Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), and one of the co-sponsors, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), spoke strongly in favor of it during the wounded warriors discussion. Earlier versions of the parental leave bill passed the full House when it was under Democratic control in 2008 and 2009, with bipartisan support. The Senate did not act then.
Federally Employed Women (FEW), an organization that supports paid leave, hopes the full Congress will act now.
“I wish I had paid parental leave 14 years ago when I had my son, because I had to deplete all of my annual and sick leave, and it took me almost 10 years to build my leave back up,” Michelle Crockett, a 28-year federal employee who also is president of FEW, said by e-mail. “There were many days that I had to go to work sick because I feared using my sick leave for myself. When you have small children you always have to plan for when they will get sick.”
Maloney said she again expects bipartisan support, but so far there are no Republican co-sponsors. Chaffetz and Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the government operations subcommittee, declined comment on the measure.
The progress of the wounded warriors bill provided a bipartisan sheen to a committee trying to shake the reputation acquired during Issa’s reign.
“This is only fair. It’s the least we can do,” said Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.), a co-sponsor of the veterans legislation. “This is one thing I think we all can agree on.”
But is it the last thing?
Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.