Elections will bring new leaders in key civil service posts
Congress will lose at least two, and possibly three, lawmakers on Tuesday who have championed the rights of federal workers and crusaded for federal management reforms.
Rep. Steve Horn, R-Calif., chairman of the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Efficiency, Financial Management and Intergovernmental Relations, and Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., ranking member of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, are retiring this year.
In addition, Rep. Connie Morella, R-Md., who has supported efforts to boost pay and benefits for federal employees during her 16 years in office, is locked in a tight reelection race against her Democratic opponent, Maryland state Sen. Chris Van Hollen.
Morella, whose suburban Maryland congressional district is home to many federal employees, recently sponsored legislation (H.R. 3340) allowing federal employees aged 50 and older to contribute an extra $1,000 to their Thrift Savings Plan accounts. The House passed the bill in October and it is now awaiting action in the Senate. The eight-term congresswoman also supported long-term care insurance for government workers and has worked to reduce health care premiums and child care costs for federal employees.
A recent Baltimore Sun and Gazette Newspapers poll of 563 voters in Morella's district showed her leading Van Hollen 44 to 42 percent, with 14 percent undecided.
Both candidates are equally devoted to federal workers, according to Paul Light, vice president and director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution. "The two are virtually indistinguishable on civil service issues," he said.
Morella, one of the most liberal Republicans in the House, fought to allow employees in the proposed Department of Homeland Security to join labor unions and engage in collective bargaining. Van Hollen has also pledged to uphold the civil service status of federal employees slated to move to the new department.
"Federal employees were the victims of attacks in government offices in New York and the Pentagon," Van Hollen said in a statement. "Federal employees are the men and women who will be on the scene when our freedom is next attacked. It is shameful that the public servants we depend upon most to protect our liberties are being asked to surrender their civil service rights to keep their jobs- they deserve more respect."
The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the largest federal employee union, took the unusual step of endorsing both candidates. "We have two excellent candidates and have equally good reasons to endorse either one," said Bobby Harnage the union's president.
AFGE praised Morella for establishing a "proven record of strong support for federal employees and their unions" during her tenure in the House.
Van Hollen has vowed to help agencies find ways to meet the challenge of recruiting top-quality civil servants to replace the large number of workers who will be eligible for retirement in the next few years. His election would also help the Democrats gain a stronger foothold in the House, meaning "one less vote in favor of retaining the rabidly anti-federal employee and anti-union House Republican leadership in the 108th Congress," according to an AFGE statement.
Van Hollen won the American Postal Workers Union's undivided support, because he is a Democrat, according to the union. "It was really an easy call for us to make," said APWU President William Burrus. "Morella is a Republican, and really anathema to organized labor. She has supported the House leadership."
But the National Treasury Employees Union decided to endorse Morella, because of her past support for federal employees. In addition to backing the "largest possible federal pay raise every year," Morella has been "instrumental in not only bringing federal employee concerns to Congress's attention, but ensuring that action is taken to address them," said NTEU President Colleen Kelley.
Horn and Thompson voluntarily gave up their seats in the House and Senate, respectively.
Horn chose to retire after efforts to redraw California's electoral map eliminated his district. A committee spokesperson did not want to speculate on who will take his place, since the whole Government Reform Committee will be reshuffled as term limits force Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind. to step down as the chair.
But nobody can fill Horn's shoes, according to Light. "This is a guy who really understands how government works," Light said. "Whoever takes over will be radically different. [Horn] was willing to put up with a fair level of ego. He presided over hearings where there were more people presenting testimony than there were in the audience."
Horn also stood out as a lawmaker who cared about information technology issues and seized on the Y2K problem before others in Congress started paying attention, Light said. The California Republican is also a longtime critic of agencies' financial management practices. In April, he gave government on overall grade of 'D' on his annual financial management report card.
Fred Thompson, who served as the chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee before the Democrats took control of that chamber, spent his two terms crusading against federal waste, fraud and abuse. He held hearings on improving agency programs cited by the General Accounting Office as being at high risk for mismanagement. He has also pushed for cost-benefit reviews of federal regulations.
If the Republicans take back the Senate on Tuesday, Thompson's departure means that the Governmental Affairs chairmanship will be up for grabs.
Sens. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, and Susan Collins, R-Maine, are next in line for the position in terms of seniority. But Stevens already serves as the ranking member on the Appropriations Committee, and would likely head that panel if the Republicans regain control of the Senate. Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, who has shown a strong interest in civil service reform, could also be a contender for the Governmental Affairs chairmanship.