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House Oversight Committee Demands Agencies Reveal Union Subsidy Data

On February 12, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee sent out letters to federal agency heads to provide more information on union “official time.”

They sent the letters in order to inform the public of a practice they likely are unaware of. That is every work day, federal employees are freed from performing their governmental duties and instead perform private union business—void of any public purpose. Taxpayers pay for these employees’ wages, pensions, health care benefits, office space, supplies they use and travel.

The Oversight Committee has undertaken this task because under the Obama administration, very little knowledge of the cost, time, and how many federal employees use official time has been made known to the public.

The authors—Reps. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), and Jody Hice (R-Ga.)—are trying to fill the void made by the Obama administration. The letter requests that agencies report the more detail on official time including the employee name, position, pay grade, whether the employee serves exclusively on official time (yes, some federal employees never perform government work and exclusively conduct union business on the taxpayers’ dime), and compensation, among other data.

The latest comprehensive data available covers FY 2012. The Office of Personnel Management report, “Labor-Management in the Executive Branch,” finds that federal employees spent a total of 3,439,449 hours on official time, an increase of 1.3 percent from FY 2011. The cost of official time also increased in FY 2012 to $157,196,468 from around $155 million.

But this cost is understated. In October 2014, a Government Accountability Office report found that the methodology used by OPM to estimate the cost of official time is inaccurate. The reports finds that the OPM estimation has obvious shortcomings, such as not using the actual salary of employees that use official time. Using a more sound methodology, GAO found that official time cost about $5 million more and at four of the six agencies it analyzed, 15 percent higher.

Unfortunately, poor methodology is only one way OPM underestimates the costs. As I point out in a previously op-ed in The Washington Examiner, there are other ways OPM shortchanges the costs of official time. For example, “research done by the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s labor policy team has unearthed a report from the Social Security Administration that contradicts OPM's official time costs for that agency.

There appears to be an approximately $2 million discrepancy in the cost of employees' salaries and benefits for official time in fiscal 2011 reported by OPM and the SSA.”

If you include the costs of travel, per diem, arbitration, offices, and supplies, which OPM does not report, the discrepancy jumps to $2.8 million.

Further, past appropriation laws have required the Social Security Administration to annually report the cost of official time. On January 27, 2015, the SSA sent its report to Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.). In FY 2014, official time cost a total of $15.1 million. SSA employees spent 246,893 hours on official time and 15 were on 100 percent official time. Official time cost $12.9 million in salary and benefits, $700,000 in travel and per diem, $1.3 million in office space, telephones and supplies, $100,000 in interest, and $100,000 in arbitration expenses. 

To reduce the use official time, in the past several sessions, the Federal Employee Accountability Act has been introduced to limit official time, most recently by Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.) last year. Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.) recently reintroduced H.R. 4392 that would require annual reporting of official time. 

Unfortunately, many Republicans have voted to keep wasting taxpayer funds on private union business. In 2014, 60 Republicans voted against eliminating official time at the Department of Veteran Affairs (see list here).

The Congressional Budget Office estimates the FY 2016 budget deficit at $544 billion, Congress needs to find savings anywhere they can. Union official time should be first on the list. It is a blatant subsidy to government unions that they use for their own purposes. Seemingly, it would be commonsense to require federal employees to actually do work that benefits the public, but under the current system that is not the case.