Nearly 80 years ago, President Franklin D. Roosevelt warned against empowering federal employee unions to strike and collectively bargain on the grounds that it would undermine “the very nature and purposes of government.” Elected officials since Roosevelt’s time have not heeded his warnings. Even straying so far from the progressive icon’s doctrine as to authorize in federal law paid time off for government employees from the duties of their public service to engage in bargaining and representation duties. In other words, rather than serving the American people, federal bureaucrats are doing union activities like lobbying on taxpayers’ dime.
So-called “official time” across the entire government amounted to roughly 3.5 million hours and over $156 million in pay when last examined by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) in 2012. In some cases, government workers may claim “official time” to settle an internal matter, like determining parking spaces or presenting coworkers with updates on union bargaining, then return back to the duties of their taxpayer-funded job. However, lax oversight from lawmakers and OPM allows official time to be abused. Even where accountability does exist, the law permits lobbying Congress on behalf of a union at taxpayer-expense and even provides salaries for employees who perform no function of the agency and spend 100 percent of their time engaging in union-related activities.
A series of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests from the same year found that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) spent over $1.6 million on salaries for full-time union employees, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) paid dozens of full-time union employees, and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) was not even keeping track of this information.
Following further inquiry from Congress into official time usage at the VA, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report this year making recommendations to improve record-keeping practices. Notably, the report also detailed how VA managers find it “especially challenging to find other staff to fill in for employees who are responsible for serving patients yet spend most of their worktime” on union activities.
This reality directly echoes President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s concerns that federal employee unions could undermine the core responsibilities of government – in this case, caring for America’s veterans. However, addressing these potential harms caused by union’s abuse of official time at the VA cannot even begin in earnest until lawmakers receive complete information from the agency on the scope of the issue.
Given the massive failures of the VA, many of which have yet to be addressed, Congress should take seriously reports that simple measurements of how taxpayer dollars are being spent on personnel at the agency are not being properly made. To this end, Rep. Jodey Arrington (R-TX) has introduced legislation to require the VA to track the use of official time and limit the amount of time agency employees can spend on union activities, with stricter limits being placed on those directly engaged in patient care. In fact, the findings of the latest GAO report should inspire Congress to revisit past investigations into government-wide usage of official time by unions. A new bill from Rep. Jody Hice (R-GA) to limit taxpayer funding for federal employees in any agency spending official time on political activities could provide a starting place for such further examinations.
It is clear that taxpayer dollars shouldn’t be subsidizing the political activities of these unions and there is reasonable evidence indicating that current official time policies make the government less efficient – with possibly deadly results, in the case of the VA. Legislators like Reps. Arrington and Hice are to be commended for leading this commonsense effort for reform. What is left to be seen is whether enough elected officials and federal agency leaders can stand up to union bosses and uncover the information needed to improve government competency.