Columnist Misrepresents Civil Service Reforms

In a recent column, The Washington Post’s Joe Davidson presents a gravely distorted view of Republican civil service reform efforts, which seek to save taxpayer money and attempt to clean up the mismanagement at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Davidson describes these legislative fixes as undercutting “worker due process rights” and “weaken labor organizations.”

Provoking Davidson’s ire is the Official Time Accountability Act of 2017 (H.R. 1364), introduced by Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.), to prohibit federal employees from conducting political activity on union official time, the practice of paying federal employees to perform union business instead of federal work. In addition, the bill calls for federal employees to lose service credit, which counts toward pension and bonuses, if they perform union business for 80 percent or more of the hours in a workday.

Federal employees should not engage in political activity on the public’s dime. But Davidson says Rep. Hice mischaracterizes what official time actually does. Rep. Hice describes official time as “paying federal employees to do union work interferes with providing the services that taxpayers deserve.” Davidson dissents:

Actually, official time covers a much broader range of activities than what “union work” implies. In fact, internal union business is not permitted. Using official time, union representatives on government pay work on behalf of a bargaining unit’s entire staff, including non-union employees the labor organizations are required to represent. Meetings with management on subjects such as increasing productivity, workplace safety and collective bargaining are covered by official time, but union elections, dues collection and membership solicitation are not.

Claiming that “internal union business is not permitted” is disingenuous. Federal employees lobbying on behalf of their union must be considered internal union business. If federal employees are performing union business—lobbying, file grievances or attending a union conventions—they are not providing public services.

Ultimately, official time is a subsidy to federal employee unions, which according to the latest data cost $162.5 million and took federal employees away from their public duties for 3.4 million hours. Union member dues, not taxpayers, should pay for the business that is conducted on official time.

Another policy Republicans are moving forward is the VA Accountability First Act (H.R. 1259), which would reduce federal employee privileges during the disciplinary process. Davidson laments that the legislation “would chop up those safeguards to facilitate firing feds faster.” He goes on:

VA Accountability First Act would do that by lowering the department’s burden of proof in certain cases and by sharply reducing the amount of time allowed for notification and response to terminations, suspensions and demotions. The 30-day notice and seven-day reply periods that are generally the rule would be cut to a combined 10 days under the legislation. That’s very little time given the legal work often required.

Unfortunately, civil service reform is necessary in order to enable federal agencies to fire problematic employees. For example, an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) employee watched porn at work for two to six hours per day, and was caught doing so, but remains on the EPA payroll.

The VA has had similar trouble removing federal employees. Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.) said the current VA grievance process can take almost a year to finish. It greatly diminishes the federal government’s ability to deliver public services efficiently if it can take up to a year to remove bad actors.

Part of the reason the federal government disciplinary process takes so long is because federal unions are given near-unlimited official time to file grievances to defend misbehaving employees. Inevitably, the taxpayer footing the bill for union grievances provides incentive for unions file frivolous grievances they wouldn’t otherwise if they had to pay themselves.

Ultimately, civil service reform is not about undercutting due process for federal employees or weakening federal employee unions. The bills attempt to bring balance to civil service procedures. Federal agencies should be able to efficiently remove poor performing employees. Federal employees should paid by the taxpayer to perform political activities.