House Republicans aren’t known as the best friends of federal employees.
The unanimous House approval of legislation allowing furloughed feds to be paid isn’t enough for the GOP to escape the blame hoisted on them by many workers and their unions for the ongoing legislative deadlock. It continues to shut out hundreds of thousands of employees, ruin public services and make Uncle Sam look like Bozo the Clown.
Much of the government is closed because Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, and the caucus he nominally leads insist on undermining or destroying the Affordable Care Act as part of any action to keep the government fully functional.
But not all Republicans are alike.
Reps. Frank Wolf and Rob Wittman, Virginia Republicans with Washington metro-area constituencies, have voiced strong support for federal workers. Though they are rated poorly on federal labor organization scorecards, especially Wittman, in recent days they have broken from Boehner by saying they would vote for a “clean CR,” a temporary government funding measure not muddied by partisan attempts to defund or delay Obamacare.
Neither likes Obamacare, and they have voted to undercut it. Yet, unlike most of their Republican colleagues, they see the wisdom in voting for a clean bill that has already been approved by the Senate and, with President Obama’s signature, would keep the government running. But in procedural moves, Wolf and Wittman stuck with their party in efforts to block a clean vote.
If Boehner would give democracy a chance to work in the House, a clean bill probably would pass. Despite his denials, vote counting by The Washington Post and others indicate enough support from House Democrats and Republicans like Wolf and Wittman to approve the Senate’s bill.
Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said Wolf is “a longtime supporter of the federal workforce.” Wolf’s rating, however, on NTEU’s most recent legislative scorecard reflecting votes important to the labor organization is mediocre. He supported the union’s position 63 percent of the time. The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) likes him much less. It gave him a 37 percent rating.
Wolf was cosponsor and a prime mover behind the unanimous vote for the bill providing pay, eventually, to furloughed feds. The Senate has not yet voted on it.
“I don’t think it is helpful for the government to shut down,” Wolf said. Sitting in a large Cannon House Office Building corner suite, reflective of his 17 terms in Congress, Wolf talked about FBI agents working on the recent Nairobi shopping-mall terrorist attack, CIA officers trying to prevent a terrorist attack on U.S. soil and the 12 government workers and contractors shot dead by a disturbed gunman at the Washington Navy Yard.
“You can’t fight al-Qaeda if you send people home,” he said. “Government has to function. It has to work.”
It’s not working now.
Wittman recognizes that the current political stalemate cuts confidence in government, but he remains positive.
“The nation has a tremendous ability to come back together,” he said.
Wittman, an avid hunter and fisherman, was surrounded in his Rayburn Building office by 20 mounted animals, just the heads in a few cases. The largest is a 308-pound yellowfin tuna caught off the coast of El Banco, Mexico. Many smaller fish, ducks and deer heads are dead testimonies to his passion.
He gave a spirited defense of federal workers, noting the nearly 40,000 in his district.
“Our federal employees are tremendously committed and patriotic individuals,” he said. “They are there to do the job for this nation. . . . People need to understand how critical these individuals are to our nation.”
The enthusiasm he voices for federal employees is not reflected in the NTEU and AFGE scorecards. They rate him at 13 percent and 5 percent, respectively. But rankings don’t tell the whole story.
Beth Moten, AFGE’s political and legislative director, said the union has “a really great working relationship” with Wittman.
Like Wolf and Boehner, Wittman wants the White House, Democrats and Republicans “to sit down and have serious conversations.”
President Obama agrees all sides should talk, but “negotiations shouldn’t require hanging the threats of a government shutdown or economic chaos over the heads of the American people,” he said at a news conference Tuesday.
Obama and Boehner in fact have negotiated, as the speaker acknowledged Sunday on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.” In July, they agreed on a measure that would not attack the health law and would fund the government at $70 billion below what Senate Democrats wanted.
Then Boehner reneged.
“Clearly there was a conversation about doing this,” he said. “But I and my members decided the threat of Obamacare and what was happening was so important that it was time for us to take a stand. And we took a stand.”
Now that stand has many federal employees and services sitting idle.
Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.