The Senate is poised to vote on two measures aimed at curbing federal employees' ability to work on union representational issues while on the clock, offering a test for whether congressional Republicans can finally send such reforms to the president’s desk.
The more controversial measure, offered by Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., as an amendment to the Senate’s annual defense authorization bill, would prevent employees from counting years where they worked at least 80 percent on union representational duties toward their retirement pensions. The bill would also prevent such employees from receiving bonuses. It would prohibit employees from engaging in any political activity, including lobbying, while on official time. The phrase “official time” would be replaced by “federal taxpayer-funded union time.”
The second amendment would demand the Office of Personnel Management issue more regular reports on official time usage. OPM is not required by statute to issue such reports, and last released information on official time use in 2014. A similar measure has already been approved in the House and by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which Johnson chairs. Only a House committee has signed off on the pension-cutting bill, and it did so without Democratic support.
House Republicans have repeatedly voted to increase oversight and reduce usage of official time over the last several years, but the Senate has largely ignored those efforts. If the upper chamber considers Johnson’s amendments to the must-pass defense bill, it would offer a window into whether Republicans can win over the handful of Democrats they would need to get their long-awaited reforms across the finish line. Lawmakers originally enabled unions to use official time to compensate the labor groups for having to represent employees they could not require to pay dues.
For their part, unions have called the official time bills an existential threat, saying Republicans were simply looking for avenues to carry out their ideological opposition to collective bargaining. The American Federation of Government Employees has called the retirement bill “union busting” that would “silence the voice of workers” and blasted an alert to its members to mobilize opposition to the new amendments.
“Federal managers and their employees are fully competent to negotiate the terms of official time, when it is needed, how much is needed, and where it should be used to address unique agency and workplace issues,” AFGE wrote in a letter to the House committee before its vote in March.
In a similar letter, the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers said it was more efficient for one employee to work 100 percent on official time than for two to split their time between union and official agency business.
“For civil servants to be able to do their jobs effectively and to report wrongdoing without fear of reprisal,” IFPTE wrote, “they must have credible and effective representation, independent of management, that can interact at all levels of government to provide decision-makers with a more balanced and complete picture to allow for better and more informed overall governance.”
Lawmakers frequently in recent years turned toward federal employees’ retirement benefits when considering various budget-cutting reforms. Congressional Republicans, and President Trump, have also proposed reducing retirement benefits governmentwide through employee contribution increases and phasing out altogether the defined benefit portion of federal employees' compensation package. President Obama signed into law multiple increases in the contribution level for new employees.