The Department of Veterans Affairs has a simple, but crucial mission. The agency’s website quotes President Lincoln’s promise to veterans to describe it:
‘To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan’ by serving and honoring the men and women who are America’s Veterans.
Last week, the Subcommittee on Government Operations and the Subcommittee on Economic Opportunities held a joint hearing because many Veterans Affairs employees are performing union activities instead of fulfilling the mission of the agency.
Using the practice known as official time, which pays federal employees their salary and benefits to perform union business instead of the job they are hired to do, VA employees spent 1.1 million hours on union work rather than serving veterans. These activities include lobbying Congress, attending union conventions, and filing grievances.
In addition to time, it also takes away millions of dollars away from caring for veterans to subsidize federal employee unions. In 2008, according to Office of Personnel Management, official time cost nearly $30 million. In 2012, the price tag for official time jumped to almost $47 million, a 36 percent increase over just a four year period.
Unfortunately, those numbers are mere estimations―and lowball ones at that. The Government Accountability Office recently released a report on official time at the VA, showing that the department does not properly track how much time employees spend on union activities or what those activities are, leaving us with little idea of how much the union subsidy costs.
I had the honor to testify at the hearing and summed up the practice of official time:
Union official time is an unwise use of limited tax dollars and serves the private interests of unions. The public does not directly benefit from the use of official time. Congress should eliminate the use of official time. In absence of abolishing official time, greater safeguards against its misuse should be implemented, such as a detailed, annual accounting of the cost and activities performed on official time.
However, fellow witness John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, and Democratic House members felt that official time is a net benefit.
In particular, Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) defended the union subsidy because it purportedly protects whistleblowers. First off, there is no evidence that federal unions could not facilitate whistleblower complaints without official time. Second, it is not an either-or situation. Congress could strengthen whistleblower protection laws and eliminate official time, which is a waste of public funds and detracts from veterans receiving care.
Mr. Gage and others pointed to alleged benefits, such as that official time helps decision making at the agency. Given the legendary mismanagement at the VA, however, that is unlikely to be true. During the hearing Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) demanded that Gage offer proof of the benefits of official time, but ultimately Gage could not guarantee that he could produce such a report. In truth, official time is a costly subsidy to unions, with quantifiable costs. In contrast, the benefits that proponents tout cannot be quantified.
Union official time is a federal-wide practice that does not serve a public purpose and should be eliminated. Hopefully, in this Congress, elected officials will address this waste.
For more information, view the hearing here and read my written testimony here. You can also find more details about reform options before Congress in the labor and employment chapter of CEI’s recent publication Free to Prosper: A Pro-Growth Agenda for the 115th Congress.