House Democrats on Wednesday temporarily blocked several Republican-backed bills targeting federal employees.
The legislation needed a two-thirds majority to pass under a “suspension of the rules” vote, which would have allowed an expedited approval. Republicans said the bills were necessary to “restore trust in the federal government.”
The Common Sense in Compensation Act would limit bonuses for rank-and-file federal employees to 5 percent of their base salaries. It also allows for no more than one-third of Senior Executive Service employees to receive bonuses at any given agency. These limitations would only exist while sequestration – a 10-year program, as laid out in current law -- is in effect.
The bill, along with others that would affect the rights and benefits of the federal workforce, sparked heated partisan debate about the sacrifices public-sector employees are making.
“We cannot continue to support such lucrative federal compensation,” said Rep. John Duncan, R-Tenn., pointing to a study that showed the average federal employee earns double the pay and benefits of his or her private-sector counterpart. “Federal employees are very fortunate to have their jobs and are very well paid,” Duncan said.
Democrats disputed this claim, noting various studies show different results in the private versus public-sector pay comparison and adding federal employees have borne the brunt of cuts in recent years.
“Federal employees have taken it on the chin recently,” said Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., who also pointed to the inconsistency between this bill and the much higher pay caps placed on federal contractors.
Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., deplored the Republican’s treatment of federal workers.
“This Congress has been the worst Congress for federal employees I have ever seen,” Hoyer said. “If you treated your private business workers the way you treat these federal employees, they’d all quit.”
He added: “This is the most competent, best educated civil service in the world. And we treat them as second-class citizens.”
The Citizens Empowerment Act -- which would allow citizens to record any conversation with federal employees acting in an official capacity without the consent of the employee -- was also pulled before receiving a full vote.
While Republicans claimed the bill served only to protect the taxpayer and to allow feds to avoid a “he said, she said” exchange, Democrats said their colleagues were trying to score political points on the backs of federal workers.
In placing the blame of the nation’s problems on the workforce, “you do terrible damage to the courageous men and women who serve our nation,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va. “These are cynical calculations meant to serve a political purpose.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said the bill risked “undermining criminal investigations by reducing the willingness of individuals to cooperate with law enforcement.” Cummings pointed to letters he received from the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association and the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys in opposition to the measure.
Democrats also blocked the Government Employee Accountability Act, which would allow agencies to place Senior Executive Service employees on unpaid leave for up to 180 days if they are accused of misapplication of funds or other job-related misconduct.
While the bill easily cleared the House in the last Congress before dying in the Senate, Democrats opposed the bill this time around as a provision was added that allows an agency head to terminate an employee under investigation.
“This bill would deprive people of due process currently provided for them in law,” Lynch said. “This is called ready, fire, aim.”
Rep. Mike Kelly, D-Pa., defended the bill, saying it is necessary to hold employees accountable.
“This is not about the men and women who go to work every day for the government,” Kelly said. “This is not about stripping their rights.”
He later asked: “Should we not be concerned with what’s right for American citizens?”
A myriad of federal employee unions have voiced their opposition to these bills. The Democratic victory will likely be short-lived, as Republicans plan to condense the three proposals into one bill and hold a vote Thursday under a closed rule.
The House cleared several agency oversight bills with bipartisan support Wednesday, as part of its “Stop Government Abuse Week.”