House Republicans are ramping up their push to bring more accountability to the practice of federal unions conducting business on the taxpayer’s dime.
Reps. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and Mark Meadows, the chairmen of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and its Government Operations Subcommittee, respectively, authored letters to the heads of every major federal agency last week asking them for more information on “official time.” The practice has since 1978 allowed federal employees to perform functions on behalf of a labor group -- rather than their normal day job -- while receiving a federal paycheck and working in a federal office.
Republicans have long sought to curb or at least shed a brighter light on official time, to little avail. Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., introduced the Federal Employees Accountability Act last year to prevent feds from engaging in official time. Hice also signed on to the oversight committee’s letters, which asked agencies to provide documentation on all their employees who performed any official time activities in fiscal years 2014 and 2015. The lawmakers asked for, among other details, the employee’s name, title, salary, whether the employee worked on official time on a full-time basis and the square footage of the space in which the employees’ worked.
The Office of Personnel Management, which reports with varying regularity on official time data -- albeit slowly and with incomplete data -- said each agency should make its own determination on how best to respond to the congressional inquiry. For it own part, an OPM spokeswoman said it “will work to respond to the committee’s request,” but declined to say if it would meet the Feb. 26 deadline.
OPM last released its Labor-Management Relations in the Executive Branch report in October 2014, which included official time data for fiscal 2012. That report found agencies spent 3.43 million hours on official time that year, up 1.3 percent from fiscal 2011 and costing $157.2 million. The spokeswoman said OPM will issue its next report “sometime later this year.”
Last month, Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Fla., introduced a bill to require OPM to report on official time annually. Congress last required OPM to report on official time in 1998, though the agency began doing so voluntarily in 2002.
Ross, who has for years sought more reporting both legislatively and by asking for it from OPM, said his measure would enable Congress to “better account for federal employees’ use of working hours and eliminate wasteful spending.”
Federal employee unions have long warned against the targeting of official time as an existential threat. The practice, they say, was allowed as a tradeoff for the requirement that the groups represent all employees in their collective bargaining units, whether or not they are union members. Unlike in other sectors, federal unions cannot require workers they represent to pay dues. Official time also comes with fiscal benefits, unions have argued, as it allows for resolution of disputes that arise in the workplace without resorting to costlier administrative or legal procedures.
Official time, the unions say, eases labor-management relations, but does not allow for conduct strictly boosting the unions. The statutes governing the practice forbid solicitation of members, internal union meetings, elections of officers and any partisan political activities for employees on official time.
While Republican lawmakers have fought for years to curb official time without success, federal labor groups have feared a Republican-controlled Congress could allow those efforts to finally prevail. The American Federation of Government Employees included potential degradation of official time as one of its top items to watch at its annual legislative conference earlier this month. When Hice attempted to eliminate official time for Veterans Affairs Department employees last year as part of a spending bill, however, the measure was defeated.
The Supreme Court is expected this year to hear a case that could prevent public sector unions from collecting mandatory membership fees from state and local government employees. The court was expected to rule against unions, perhaps undermining a fundamental argument for the existence of official time, but that outcome now hangs in the balance with the recent death of Justice Antonin Scalia.