House Panel Backs Greater Oversight of Union Workers with Federal Salaries

Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Fla. Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Fla. Phil Coale/AP File Photo

A bill to require more transparency in the practice of “official time” -- when public sector union officials receive taxpayer funded salaries and work in government offices -- cleared a House oversight committee Wednesday.

The legislation -- H.R. 568, sponsored by Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Fla. -- calls for the Office of Personnel Management to submit a yearly report to Congress “relating to the use of official time by federal employees.” Congress last required OPM to report on official time in 1998, and the agency began doing so voluntarily in 2002.

The bill received bipartisan support after House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, D-Calif., amended Ross’ bill to address Democratic concerns. The changes require each agency to report its data to the OPM and eliminate the need to report on the cost of union officials’ use of federal office space -- a requirement Ranking Member Elijah Cummings, D-Md., called “difficult and burdensome.”

Issa said the bill increases transparency, as the reports OPM currently produces are “incomplete and untimely.” He maintained the bill is not attempting to limit the use of official time, but to simply count it.

“In this day and age, this is data that can be collected and should be collected,” Issa said, adding the reports will allow the committee to determine the appropriateness of the amount of official time taken.

In 2011, the most recent year for which OPM has released official time data, the government spent a record $155 million on union workers’ salaries. Federal employees spent 3.4 million hours working for unions while receiving the taxpayer-funded salaries. The bill would require a breakdown of the number of employees who work full-time on union activities, which was 946 in 1998 -- the last time the figure was measured. An additional 2,046 spent at least half their time working for a union.

In announcing his support for the bill, Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., said official time is nothing more than “paid time off for federal employees.” The unions have defended the practice -- which has been around since the Kennedy administration -- as a “fair and effective” use of taxpayer dollars, allowing the unions to represent both its members and non-dues paying employees.   

Now that it has cleared the largely absent oversight committee -- most members did not return from the panel’s marathon hearing investigating the Internal Revenue Service -- the bill will move to the House floor for a full vote.

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