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Congress Expands Investigation into Inappropriate Federal Employee Political Activity

Over the summer, an investigation by the Office of the Special Counsel (OSC) unearthed that United States Postal Service (USPS) employees and union engaged in a “systematic violation” of the Hatch Act, a law placing limits on political activity performed by federal employees.

Whistleblower Tim Kopp, who works as a letter carrier, broke the news to Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI). Kopp informed Johnson of sketchy leave practices associated with 2016 election. The mail carrier turned whistleblower “was concerned the Postal Service ‘incurred unnecessary overtime costs’ and ‘improperly coordinated’ with the NALC [National Association of Letter Carriers], the union.”

CNN reported that the OSC’s investigation found “the USPS granted employees union leave time off, at the request of the union, to do political activity -- which OSC concluded was a ‘systematic violation’ of a law regarding the political activity of federal employees.”

It gets worse. Local USPS supervisors initially objected to the practice of granting employees time off without pay to campaign for NALC supported candidates. But, as Adam Miles, acting special counsel at OSC, explained, NALC coordinated with senior USPS officials to send an email, which was seen by lower ranking USPS officials as “directives to release the carriers” to conduct political activities in favor of union candidates.

The OSC report supplied to the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, which Sen. Johnson chairs, found that “97 members of the NALC requested leave without pay to participate in a program, called Labor 2016, to help elect Clinton and other union-backed candidates.”

Shockingly, this practice of granting unpaid leave to USPS employees to conduct union-sanctioned political activity, including making phone calls, canvassing, and other get out the vote efforts, dates back to potentially the 1990s, according to the OSC findings.

In an attempt to downplay the longstanding, illegal political activity by USPS employees and NALC, William Siemer, the acting deputy inspector general of the USPS’s inspector general's office, “indicated it was a case of institutional inertia.”

Siemer went on to say, “It seemed that it was adopted just as a practice where nobody was really looking at it through the lens of is this appropriate or not.”

Thankfully, Sen. Johnson and Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) are not taking the violations so lightly. On August 22, 2017, the Congressmen sent a letter to ten other agencies requesting information on their leave without pay policies, specifically related to employees released for union political activity.

This is an important investigation. It is crucial that federal agencies be seen as politically neutral, and that federal employees follow limits on their participation in politics. 

Yet, while they are investigating inappropriate political activity by federal employees, information should be requested on how much time federal employees engage in political activity on the taxpayer dime.

Clearly, if it is inappropriate for federal employees to engage in certain political activity without pay, conducting political activity while paid for by the taxpayer warrants investigation.

Unfortunately, there is a longstanding practice that allows federal employees to lobby Congress while being paid by the taxpayer, known as union official time.

The practice allows federal employees to stop performing their civic duties to perform union business, some of which is political in nature, like lobbying Congress, but also includes attending union conventions, participating in grievance procedures, and collective bargaining negotiations.

But it is unknown what federal employees actually do on official time, because federal agencies fail to track the specific union activity performed by civil servants. Union official time is costly and used generously throughout the federal government. In the latest report by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), covering Fiscal Year 2014, official time costs taxpayers $165.5 million, a known shortchanging of the real cost of the wasteful practice. Additionally, OPM found federal employees spent 3.4 million hours on union activities.

Further investigation into the practice is necessary to gain a grasp of what is done on official time and how much it really costs. Likely any thorough examination of official time would lead to its demise. Permitting federal employees to perform any other duties than the ones they were hired to perform is an egregious waste of taxpayer funds.

However, some members of Congress have targeted the union subsidy. Rep. Dennis Ross (R-FL) has introduced H.R. 1293, which requires detailed, annual reporting of official time. Currently, the Office of Personnel Management only releases official time costs and hours used every two years and is years behind in releasing the costs of the union subsidy.

Another bill introduced by Rep. Jody Hice (R-GA), the Official Time Reform Act of 2017, would prohibit federal employees from lobbying on behalf of federal employee unions on official time. In addition, any federal employee who spends 80 percent or more on official time in a day loses service credit hours for that day. Meaning those employees would not accrue pension contributions on days they primarily conduct union business.

These are good first steps, but as I conclude in a recent report:

Official time is an unnecessary subsidy to federal employee unions that serves the interests of unions and their members, not the public. The taxpayer does not receive a direct benefit or any discernable consideration in return for the cost of official time.

Congress should eliminate this federal union subsidy.