Standing Pat

July 1996
PROFILE

Standing Pat

Rep. Patricia Schroeder will leave her mark on Congress and the civil service when she retires this year. She'll probably have the last word, too.

By Anne Laurent

It looks like Congress' Queen of Quips will go to her retirement tweaking, poking, prodding and jibing all the way. Rep. Patricia Schroeder, D-Colo., that siren of sound bites, isn't giving an inch to the Republican majority in the tug of war for the hearts and minds of Americans. And why should she? Who else has so relentlessly encapsulated the irony, hypocrisy and sheer ridiculousness of governing and legislating in a few pointed words?

Just two months ago, Schroeder, who was pilloried for public tears when she withdrew from the 1988 Presidential race, needled politicians and the press for their warm reception of Sen. Robert Dole's wet eyes upon announcing his retirement from the Senate. "This modern-day crying jag among my male colleagues is an advancement of sorts, but we want equal rights," Schroeder wrote in the Washington Post. Last November, Schroeder took to the House floor with a mock Oscar for House Speaker Newt Gingrich after he suggested he prolonged the government shutdown because President Clinton slighted him on Air Force One returning from Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin's funeral. Schroeder cited Gingrich's "Best Performance by a Child Actor." She has variously stuck Ronald Reagan with the nickname, "the Teflon-coated president;" called defense contractors "the welfare queens of the 1980s;" and suggested U.S. foreign policy is too often "driven by our glands, not our brains."

"Yes, I make quips," Schroeder says. "This world is filled with clutter and noise and if you can't find a verbal picture that can frame your issue, it just turns out to be blather." Schroeder's reputation for rapier ripostes no doubt will live on well after she leaves Congress this year. Far less well-known is her record of advocacy for change in Congress, dogged defense of federal employees and insistence that the federal government be America's best employer.

Friend of Public Servants

Elected to the House in 1972, Schroeder sought seats on two committees: Armed Services and Post Office and Civil Service. Armed Services because it was the best place for an anti-Vietnam War activist to stir up trouble, and Post Office and Civil Service because, "I always thought public service was wonderful. I wanted to do it," Schroeder says. "When I first got out of law school I went to work for the National Labor Relations Board. I [was] practicing what I preach."

Of course Schroeder also had a sizable federal constituency. "She was representing an area where you had the great big Denver federal center with a lot of federal employees," says Bernard Rosen, professor at American University's School of Government and former executive director of the Civil Service Commission. "She really had the opportunity to see the federal government operating in her backyard. I think she generally felt things were not going as they should." Even today, Denver is home to 25,000 federal workers, more than half the total for the entire state of Colorado.

Schroeder's 24 years-12 terms-in Congress include 10 spent running the civil service subcommittee of the Post Office and Civil Service Committee. She fought for retirement benefits for divorced spouses of civil servants, better protection for whistleblowers; "family-friendly" employment benefits, including the Family and Medical Leave Act; expanded political rights; and pay and employment equity for women and minorities. Schroeder's enemies and friends in the civil service arena seem equally sorry to see her retiring.

"Anything I say is going to sound nasty and I don't really feel that way," says Donald Devine, former Reagan Administration Office of Personnel Management director. Devine and Schroeder locked horns until Devine resigned in 1985. "I might miss her because it was kind of fun provoking her."

"I think it's a great loss," Says Rep. Constance Morella, R-Md., whose own interest in federal workers and women's issues parallels Schroeder's, though from the other side of the aisle. "I will feel it because she's been such a great supporter of civil servants and women. Her opponents will feel it because they won't have that strong voice on the other side."

"I think federal employees and the federal government will be poorer for her absence," Rosen says. "There's no question in my mind she was a strong advocate for civil service policies that would provide the country with a merit-based and high-performing civil service."

All Heart

Where Schroeder's opponents and supporters agree is on her toughness and personal investment in issues. "I may have disagreed with her positions, but I recognize her passion," says George Nesterczuk, once OPM associate director under Devine, now staff director for the House Government Reform and Oversight civil service subcommittee. "I remember Mrs. Schroeder from my former life," says Nesterczuk. "Mrs. Schroeder put out a press release attacking me. It made a headline in the Federal Times: '35-Year-Old Astrophysicist Named to head SES.' I got a chuckle out of it. We had never met so I didn't take her assessment very seriously."

Dubbed "flaky," "partisan," ineffective and even "a witch," Schroeder has shrugged off or outlasted most of her assailants and given back as good as she's gotten. "She is an enormously scrappy kind of fighter," Devine says. And well he should, for Devine's relationship with Schroeder was famously contentious. The two tangled over everything from the downgrading of OPM retirement claims examiners, to efforts to purge the Combined Federal Campaign of "advocacy" groups. When Schroeder used the grade levels of State Department claims examiners to argue OPM examiners were graded too low, Devine pushed to downgrade the State employees. "She got whipsawed on it," says Nesterczuk. "She embarrassed herself on the classification issue by emotionally defending employees."

When Schroeder claimed Devine tried to bar Planned Parenthood from the CFC because he once directed an anti-abortion political action committee, Devine accused Schroeder of failing to disclose that she once was legal counsel to Planned Parenthood of Colorado.

But at the final bell in their long-standing grudge match, it was Schroeder who was left standing. At the end of his first term as OPM director while he was awaiting reconfirmation, Devine signed an order giving himself power to run the agency as a special assistant to acting director Loretta Cornelius. Schroeder pressured Cornelius to separate herself from Devine and threatened hearings to reveal who really was running OPM. Cornelius testified at a Senate hearing that Devine had asked her to lie about the arrangement. He withdrew his nomination for a second four-year term.

Devine faults Schroeder for being unwilling to drop her guard and compromise behind closed doors. "Almost every Democrat I disagreed with publicly I got along with enormously well in private, but she never let the public mask down. I guess she really took it personally. She was always trying to make a point and be ideological.

"She kind of shaped how we operated tactically, but she didn't affect the content of what we did. She was so up front and aggressive it kind of helped us develop our strategy of being up front and aggressive," he adds.

Other critics suggest Schroeder has been long on liberalism and provocation, but short on actual legislative achievement. Her detractors, and even some supporters, say Schroeder was always ready to stake out a controversial position, but left the hard work of carving out bills to others. Nesterczuk calls her "more politically oriented than substantively oriented. There were a lot of battles that I thought were unnecessary powder in the air. There are downsides to passion when you apply passion to an argument where reason has to prevail."

Even Schroeder reaches back into the late 1970s and early 1980s for her proudest civil service accomplishments. She recalls six bills she authored or sponsored entitling spouses and former spouses of civil servants, Foreign Service officers and military service members to a share of federal retirement payments and medical benefits. "We had ambassador's wives working as janitors," because they were denied rights to their former husbands' annuities, Schroeder says. "I'm amazed that as I walk through airports people still will say to me 'Thank you for my mother.' It has brought a certain level of dignity to people."

As for the charge that she wouldn't deal, Schroeder says, "What they're saying is they couldn't find my price. I'll cut a deal if I think it's fair. But what they really want to find is that they make nuclear submarines in your district or that they make something and you have to have it, so they finally can come to you and say, 'Back off your wacko idea or we're going to strangle your kitty cat.' It makes them so mad," Schroeder says, shouting the last two words, "because they can't find my pet cat."

Schroeder wasn't just a gadfly, she was a goad, her admirers say. Her contribution shouldn't be measured in bills passed, but in changes provoked, says George Gould, legislative director for the National Association of Letter Carriers and former staff director for four House Post Office and Civil Service subcommittees. "She came at a time when good old boys controlled Congress. She realized she needed to be a voice for change. While you don't see a lot of laws passed, you see her giving them a tough time. I think she was a meaningful, effective voice for changing the way Congress worked.

"She was an idea person, an advocate. Every Congress needs that. Without ideas, you don't have legislation. Writing legislation can always be done by staff," Gould says. He praises Schroeder for taking tough positions, including pushing through the spousal retirement legislation in the face of union objections. "A lot of males retired and didn't provide for their spouses. Some union representatives thought the male had the right to determine if he wanted to have the bucks in retirement."

Robert Tobias, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, notes legislative failures sometimes have far-reaching effects, using as an example Schroeder's effort to ensure comparable jobs received comparable pay, whether they were held by women or men. "It came to naught legislatively, but the constant pushing on the issue creates an awareness so people treat the problem in other ways. Maybe the classification system didn't get changed, but more women got hired and promoted."

Constant Combat

She has swum upstream her whole career, and now Schroeder seems tired and a bit dispirited, especially about the fate of civil servants in Congress. Her hopes were raised, then dashed by Bill Clinton's election. She called the 1992 election an "American perestroika" and predicted Clinton would "restructure government so that it is thoughtful, practical, cost-efficient and people-friendly." Her current assessment of Clinton is subdued. "He's trying, but he's got a mood up there. He's got a Congress with an attitude. He had a Democratic Congress for two years, but of course they were trying to outdo the Republicans."

Kind words about federal employees are the kiss of death for Members of today's Congress, Schroeder argues. The downhill slide for bureaucrats' image began when "Carter started beating them up a bit," and gathered speed soon thereafter, when two successive chairmen of the Senate civil service committee lost re-election bids, she says. "The message to Senators was: 'You won't make any career protecting federal employees or postal employees.' They scrapped the committee and folded it into Governmental Affairs, so it lost a lot of gravitas in the Senate. We could pass a lot of stuff, but trying to get the Senate to focus . . . it was way down at the bottom of their agenda."

After Republicans took over Congress in 1994, a similar fate befell the House Post Office and Civil Service Committee. Schroeder was in line to take over the committee when the Republicans eliminated it and made civil service a subcommittee of the Government Reform and Oversight Committee. "The same message came through in the House that came through in the Senate, that there really weren't any political points in there," she says. Schroeder considers the last year proof that interest in the civil service has reached a nadir in the Capitol. "I just feel very bad about what's happened to public servants. Never did I think I would see the government shut down, 13 continuing resolutions, stop-and-start funding, beating on people 24 hours a day about how privatization is the answer to everything."

Schroeder says her greatest disappointment "has been to watch people who quietly, one on one, agree with you but just feel the political current is so strong they are not willing to swim against it. I've never been able to put together a team of strong swimmers against that current," Schroeder laments. Nevertheless, she said she hopes civil servants saw her as an advocate who wouldn't "wig out on them." Many did see her as a stalwart defender, according to Morella, who says civil servants have Schroeder to thank "for treating them as human beings and believing federal workplaces should attract the best and the brightest and want them to stay."

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec