The first step in solving a problem is recognizing there is one. And in the case of federal employees performing union business on the taxpayer dime, knowing how big the problem is.
Yesterday the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee took a great step toward understanding how many hours and the cost of federal employees conducting union business instead of their public duties. The Senate committee approved H.R. 1293, sponsored by Rep. Dennis Ross (R-FL), that requires the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to submit an annual report on the practice of “official time,” which allows federal employees to be paid to do union business like lobby government officials, attend union conventions, negotiates contracts, and file grievances. Basically, official time finances all activity union member dues should pay for, but taxpayers foot the bill.
More specifically, the legislation requires the collection of the total amount official time in the federal government, the cost, specific activity performed on official time, impact on federal agency operations, and total amount of federal employees using official time, among other criteria.
This is a crucial reform because the federal government has never consistently reported to the public the cost of official time, or how taking federal employees away from their jobs impacts agency operations. In addition, when the federal government does report on the cost of official time, it provides incomplete data and severely underestimates the cost.
A 2014 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report criticized OPM’s accounting methods related to official time for being inaccurate. GAO found at four of the six agencies it examined, official time costs are about 15 percent higher than the OPM cost estimates.
But even though only inaccurate and incomplete information related to official time is available, the data out there still shows how costly the union subsidy is. In fiscal year 2014, the OPM reported that official time cost $162 million, a result of federal employees spending 3.4 million hours on union activities.
As I previously wrote in response to the House passage of H.R. 1293:
Taxpayers have a right to know how much of their tax dollars are used to finance federal employee unions and what union activities siphon away our public servants. By statute, official time use outside of collective bargaining must be “reasonable, necessary, and in the public interest,” but activity other than collective bargaining makes up more than three-fourths of official time use. Without proper tracking and recording, it is impossible to know if that time spent on union matters is at all reasonable, necessary, or in the public interest.
The Senate took a great step forward today to bringing transparency to the wasteful practice of official time. Now it is time to finish the job.