As the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings is in the difficult position of protecting federal employees from a stream of proposals pushed by the majority Republicans that would limit pay and benefits.
It’s an important fight for him, and not just because Social Security’s main office is in his Maryland district. But it’s a fight he regularly loses, as he did Tuesday when the committee approved a bill that would have workers pay more for what in many cases would be reduced retirement benefits.
The Federal Diary spoke with Cummings about federal workplace issues. (An interview has also been requested with Rep. Dennis A. Ross (R-Fla.), chairman of the federal workforce subcommittee, who is often Cummings’s opposite on employee legislation.) Here is a transcript of the Cummings interview, edited for clarity and length.
Federal Diary: Given the government’s financial problems, do you think federal employees, who are now in the middle of a two-year freeze on basic pay, will be required to sacrifice more?
Cummings: I think Republicans are going to do everything in their power to make sure they sacrifice more. I am vehemently against it. I think they have sacrificed enough already over these two years. I don’t think we should be trying to address these budget problems on the backs of these employees.
Will the Congressional Budget Office report increase the chances of a third-year extension of the pay freeze? (The CBO said federal employees with a high school education or less earn about 21 percent more than their private-sector counterparts; federal workers with a bachelor’s degree earn about the same; and those with advanced degrees are paid about 23 percent less. In a comparison of total compensation, including benefits, federal workers receive 16 percent more, according to the CBO).
It’s a very mixed report. . . . I have no doubt the Republicans will try to take it and say federal employees are overpaid. The CBO is very skillful at scoring (estimating the cost of legislative proposals). I don’t know how skillful they are at these kinds of reports. . . . A lot of the private sector is getting rid of things like pensions. Are we going to allow ourselves to race to the bottom and do away with benefits?
Will budgetary problems result in a smaller workforce? If that’s the case, how and where should the cuts be made?
Whatever cuts we make, we should do them with the skill of the most experienced heart surgeon. We don’t want to cut to the point where we kill the patient. I believe the demand on the government is going to increase. I’ve seen it in my offices already. We have a tremendous demand on our office. When people are out of work or losing their homes, they need more government service, not less. Democrats must emphasize that we want a workforce that is skilled and adequate to carry out the responsibilities that only government can carry out.
Do you think the government needs to limit the amount of money spent on contractors?
I think we need to limit the amount of money going to contractors. I think we also need to do what President Obama was talking about, that their salaries are comparable to those in the federal government and not necessarily those in the private sector.
Some Republicans say the federal government should do a lot less, doing away with whole agencies and departments. In that case you would not need as many employees.
I have a very diverse district, not only from a racial standpoint, but also from an economic standpoint. I am convinced that my constituents think government works and works well for my constituents. They need roads so that they can get to work. They want to make sure that food is safe. I could go on and on. They want to make sure airplanes are properly inspected. There is definitely a major role for government. As we go through the process and we are looking at what we are cutting, I think we also have to balance that by making sure we are getting the resources to address those things that we are requiring government to do. . . .
I think it’s important that we stop bashing federal employees. I think it’s very unfair. It’s very unfortunate. We need to make sure we provide a strong work environment. We need to make sure they are properly paid. And we should show them that we do in fact appreciate them. These federal employees are our neighbors. They are our relatives. They are our friends. . . . I’m going to defend them with everything I got.