Watching the Workforce
Three lawmakers have gained new prominence with federal employee issues.
They are-starting with the most senior in the congressional pecking order- a former ironworker from Massachusetts with a family chock-full of U.S. Postal Service employees, a lawyer from Baltimore with a penchant for pinstriped suits and a family tradition of public service, and a jocular management and foreign affairs expert from Virginia who worked his way up from president of his local citizens association to a seat in the House. Though they followed very different paths to Capitol Hill, Reps. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass.; John Sarbanes, D-Md.; and Gerry Connolly, D-Va.; are working together and in parallel on a range of issues that matter to the federal workforce.
They have held hearings on telework, workplace diversity, work-life balance and technology; written legislation aimed at making the federal government a more competitive employer; and extolled the nobility of public service. And they are making the case that federal employees need more resources as they tackle additional responsibilities related to the financial crisis and face the prospect of a large government role in health care and environmental reforms.
The new presidential administration and Democratic majority in Congress have given the three a perch from which to push their federal employee-friendly agenda. Lynch became chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on the Federal Workforce in January, after Rep. Danny K. Davis, D-Ill., was assigned to the House Ways and Means Committee. Sarbanes has been agitating for telework reform since arriving in the House in 2007, only to see the issue-and his profile on workforce initiatives-elevated by the Obama administration. And as president of the freshman class of lawmakers and a member of Lynch's subcommittee, Connolly, elected in 2008 to fill the seat vacated when Republican Tom Davis retired, finally has an opportunity to pursue issues he worked on at the local level in Northern Virginia for almost two decades.
"I didn't come here to do the trivial," Connolly says. "I came here to continue a long tradition of activist legislating. I was a real bottom-line, can-do chairman of one of the biggest counties in the country, and I bring that work ethos here. I want to get things done."
That goes for all three.
Most members of Congress come into contact with civil servants, whether across a witness table or over the phone resolving a constituent's concern. But Lynch, Sarbanes and Connolly have a more intimate knowledge of public employees and the issues that affect them.
For Lynch that experience began at home. His mother was a longtime postal clerk, and more than a dozen of his immediate and extended family members have worked for the Postal Service as clerks or letter carriers. Lynch's own career took a different route: He was a General Motors ironworker, and later president of the Massachusetts Ironworkers Union. That experience motivated him to earn his law degree from Boston College, which led to an employment law practice that helped him when he ran for the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1994. From there, he moved swiftly to the state Senate, and during his tenure on Beacon Hill, he earned a master's of public administration from Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. He won his congressional seat in a special election in 2001.
Lynch says, half-jokingly, that years of outspoken family conversations have helped him realize federal employees aren't always adequately recognized for their contributions. In the Postal Service's case, he notes, "I think while they are appreciated by the public, there's a dichotomy there where they don't feel appreciated by leadership."
Like Lynch, Sarbanes has a family tradition of public service. His father, Paul, represented Maryland in the Senate for 30 years and remains involved in federal employee issues: Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry tapped the elder Sarbanes to help lead a major conference on federal pay reform in Washington this fall. John Sarbanes, a Harvard-educated lawyer, spent almost two decades in private practice focusing on health care law and frequently representing nonprofit hospitals, before he followed his father's lead by becoming a government employee. He spent seven years as a liaison to the Baltimore City Public Schools from the Maryland state super- intendent's office. Since 2007 he has represented a district rich in federal employees, and in particular, federal commuters. This has made him a passionate advocate of telework, a concern he and Connolly share.
Sarbanes also is a staunch advocate for government's scientific work. In recent months, he's visited a wildlife refuge in his district with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and the environmental resource center at Fort Meade with Environmental Protection Agency head Lisa Jackson to show support for scientific integrity and dedicating resources to federal scientific research. Of the three, Connolly is the newest to Capitol Hill. He shares an alma mater with Lynch and Sarbanes, having earned a public administration degree from Harvard, and he is well-versed in international issues after a decade working for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee early in his career. But Connolly's formative experience in government comes from his long involvement in the management of Fairfax County, Va., which has the largest population of the counties in the Washington metropolitan area and is home to 56,000 federal employees. Connolly made his name as a community leader in the response to an oil spill at a Fairfax Star-Texaco facility during his tenure as president of the Mantua Citizens Association and later, as the only president of the Fairfax County Federation of Citizens Associations ever to win reelection. In 1995 he was elected to the county's board of supervisors and in 2003, he ascended to the chairmanship of the board.
Under Connolly's leadership, the Fairfax government expanded an experimental telework program into a countywide effort. He also helped lead a major reorganization of the county government's pay system, creating a five-tier payband arrangement that linked compensation to job performance. That experience has put Connolly on federal management groups' lists of lawmakers to watch.
"One of the challenges, frequently, for legislators, is they don't have a feel for the challenge and the opportunity of managing," says Max Stier, president and chief executive officer of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. Connolly is "likely not only to care about these issues, but to have a much deeper appreciation for what it takes to make things work."
Lynch, Sarbanes and Connolly are quick to praise the Obama team, and are busy figuring out how the administration's interest in management aligns with their own ambitions for workforce reform, and how they can support the president's goals.
"I think it's put a heavier burden on us to demonstrate that we are ready to be part of that joint enterprise on the part of our federal workers, and that we're going to put authorizations and resources behind that new focus," Sarbanes says. "We're glad to help shoulder that."
Outside groups are counting on the congressmen to codify management and workforce policies in law as part of the administration's legacy. Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, says the union learned a difficult lesson when President George W. Bush used an executive order to abolish the labor-management partnership councils President Clinton created with a similar order. NTEU plans to fight for a law that would make such councils permanent.
The trio seems happy to accept the challenge. Sarbanes and Connolly, for instance, are pushing legislation that would ensure initiatives to expand telework are institutionalized.
In late April, Berry announced that OPM would establish a telework council to guide best practices, develop training on overseeing employees working off-site, and require agencies to designate telework managers and introduce appeals processes for employees denied the opportunity to use the work arrangement. Sarbanes and Connolly turned out to support Berry during a Capitol Hill press conference to outline these reforms, and are advocating passage of the Telework Improvements Act to encourage lasting changes.
So far, the admiration between the three congressmen and the Obama administration seems to cut both ways.
In early July, Berry made an appearance in support of a Sarbanes initiative that predated Obama's election. The personnel chief traveled to Baltimore to deliver remarks at Johns Hopkins University praising a program Sarbanes developed that will provide substantial relief from federal education loans to graduates who spend a decade in public service jobs. The loan program is designed to be a recruiting incentive as agencies prepare to expand their staffs and address an impending retirement wave.
"This program that John Sarbanes has made possible allows us to break that albatross [of debt]," Berry said. "It was visionary to combine this with the notion of public service."
A Personal Touch
Of course, the administration's goals are just one factor influencing Lynch, Sarbanes and Connolly as they seek to make law. Building on a foundation of hearings and votes during the 110th Congress, the trio has made substantial progress on a range of workforce and pay and benefits bills this year. In June, President Obama signed major tobacco regulation legislation that included amendments modernizing federal employees' 401(k)-like Thrift Savings Plan. Those provisions passed the House as part of a similar tobacco bill before stalling in the Senate in 2008; Lynch and other legislators pushed hard to ensure they didn't meet the same fate this year.
Lynch also used his position as leader of the federal workforce subcommittee as a bully pulpit to help Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., champion legislation that would allow federal workers to take four weeks of paid leave for the birth or adoption of a child or the arrival of a foster child into their home. The bill is stuck the same place it was last year, having passed the House and is awaiting a vote in the Senate. It has a better chance of making it into law this time around though, because Lynch helped get it through the House much earlier in the congressional session.
Legislators also are setting priorities distinct from those of the administration. Connolly has pushed Obama to expand and codify the newly created chief technology officer position with the idea that establishing the job and its duties in law would give the CTO greater latitude and authority to update agencies' technology and enhance employees' IT skills. The cause is similar to one Connolly pursued in Fairfax.
And as the administration weighs a substantial reform of the federal pay system, Lynch, Sarbanes and Connolly are likely to have opinions of their own on how to proceed. Lynch and Connolly voted for the fiscal 2010 Defense Authorization Act even though it contained a provision requiring the rollback of the controversial Defense Department National Security Personnel System that Obama described as "premature" in a statement of administration policy. (Sarbanes did not vote on the bill.)
That's not to say the three don't support the concept of connecting pay to job performance. Sarbanes says his time in the Maryland school system convinced him that incentive-based pay systems can work in institutions that have extremely strong professional development programs and are willing to collaborate with employee organizations in developing pay frameworks.
Connolly says a two-year process of meeting with employee focus groups and advisory committees was critical to creating a working pay-for-performance system in Fairfax County. After discussions with stakeholders, the county introduced a strong process for appealing pay decisions, and decided to exempt certain classes of employees, including public safety officers, from the system. Connolly says he believes the resulting pay arrangement has finally, if slowly, won acceptance from county employees. "Can we transfer that kind of experience, at the local level, to the federal level?" he asks. "In theory, yeah. But there are a lot of things that would be huge challenges to try to implement in the federal workforce."
While all three may have different pet projects and unique perspectives on the best way to achieve the Obama administration's goals, Lynch, Sarbanes and Connolly are broadly engaged in convincing their colleagues that sound management of federal agencies is essential, and in showing constituents that public service is a noble calling. Lynch says Obama has given "a real shot in the arm" to public service as a concept, with his pledge to "make government cool again" and his dedication to volunteerism.
And Sarbanes says his colleagues might be more receptive to change, as they are seeing the stresses on federal agencies, if only through contact with their constituents. "If it's a Social Security issue, a Medicare issue, an immigration issue, a tax issue . . . they come to us, because we're their federal representatives," he says. "So every member, regardless of whether they have federal employees in their district, is very keenly aware of where some of the bureaucratic hot spots and breakdowns are within these federal agencies. Most of the constituents that I talk to-and it's refreshing in this regard-really believe government can work, and they want it to work."
As the new president and his management team try not to let the citizens down, an invigorated cadre of congressmen with deep experience in the problems at hand and the energy to tackle them is ready for action.