What the Results in Key Congressional Races Mean for Federal Employees
A look at the 117th Congress and the results of the races that will most impact federal workers.
As ballots across the country continue to be counted, the 117th Congress has begun to take shape.
Federal employees hoping for an end to divided government and the endless onslaught of near-shutdowns that has so often accompanied it may be out of luck. Democrats appear likely to see a net loss of seats in the House, but will maintain control of the chamber. In the Senate, the majority still hangs in the balance. Republicans triumphed in most of the close races where Democrats had hoped to pick up seats, but it now appears likely that control for the chamber will come down to two runoff races in Georgia set to take place in January.
That would have significant implications for legislative oversight of federal agencies, a number of civil service and compensation issues likely to arise in the coming years and the next president’s ability to confirm political appointees. A potential President Biden would have an entire Cabinet and more than 1,000 positions throughout the government to fill with the Senate’s consent.
In some of the closest races in the country, candidates—some of whom are now elected officials—had a long track record on public sector workforce issues. Government Executive previously examined 10 races for feds to track on Election Day. Here is a look at how those turned out and what it will mean for government management.
At the top of the list for federal workers was the Senate race in Michigan. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., is currently the ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, the panel with direct oversight of the federal workforce. Should Democratic candidates pull off a win in both Georgia races early next year, he would be first in line to serve as the committee's chairman.
That could mark a dramatic shift in the type of legislation and hearings the committee drafts and holds. Peters has pushed for more protections for federal workers working during the coronavirus pandemic, stronger collective bargaining rights for employee unions and against what he has described as Trump’s “blunt policy choices” on civil service matters. In recent months, Peters has led congressional Democrats’ charge against U.S. Postal Service reforms implemented by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, saying the changes were damaging a critical public institution.
If Republicans hold onto their Senate majority, Republicans would have to come up with a new chairman, as the current head, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., is term limited. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who led the Office of Management and Budget during the George W. Bush administration, is seen as a likely replacement.
Democrats’ difficult path to Senate control was forged, in large part, due to Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, winning reelection. Democrats had hoped Sara Gideon could prevent Collins’ fifth term, but Gideon conceded the race on Wednesday. Collins used to serve as the top Republican on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and often played an instrumental role in legislation affecting federal employees. In recent years, Collins has staked out several pro-federal union stances, including by speaking out against Trump administration efforts to strip Defense Department workers of collective bargaining rights and shrink the Federal Labor Relations Authority. She has proposed giving hazard pay to federal workers on the front lines of COVID-19 response and ensuring feds who work during shutdowns receive their paychecks without delay, and has played a key role on issues affecting the U.S. Postal Service.
While she has not spoken out against it yet, Collins could be a senator to watch as the Trump administration races to implement its Schedule F executive order. The senator has previously resisted efforts to push employees out of the competitive service.
Trump is losing an ally in Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo, who will concede his seat to John Hickenlooper. The former Democratic governor showed an openness to targeting government workers for budget reduction, successfully leading an effort to reform his state employees’ pensions by increasing workers’ contribution, reducing the annual cost-of-living adjustment and raising the retirement age. During his brief presidential run, Hickenlooper billed himself as a pragmatist and could be a lawmaker willing to reach across the aisle on those issues.
Democrats' other pickup in the upper chamber was in Arizona, where Mark Kelly defeated incumbent Republican Sen. Martha McSally. Kelly could fill McSally’s shoes as a leading voice on issues affecting federal border personnel, an issue always of importance in Arizona. The senator-elect is a former Navy pilot with executive branch experience as a NASA astronaut.
In Montana, meanwhile, Republican Sen. Steve Daines held onto his seat, defeating Gov. Steve Bullock. Daines has praised Trump for “tackling the swamp” through his government reorganization plan, but successfully lobbied the president to keep several federal Jobs Corps centers after the administration initially proposed eliminating them. Daines could be a key player in U.S. Postal Service issues going forward, as he has introduced bills to end its mandate to prefund health care costs for future retirees and to provide the mailing agency with $25 billion to offset losses sustained during the COVID-19 pandemic.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is likely to serve one more term leading the chamber. She has said she would step down from the position in the 118th Congress. Her majority is likely to be slightly smaller than the one she currently enjoys, with Republicans flipping several seats around the country.
Democrats failed to pick up one of their top targets in Pennsylvania, where Rep. Brain Fitzpatrick, R, held off his opponent. Fitzpatrick has frequently crossed party lines during his four years in office to stand up for federal workers and, during his last race, was a rare Republican to win an endorsement from the American Federation of Government Employees. Fitzpatrick—himself a former federal employee as an FBI veteran—has introduced legislation to roll back Trump’s executive orders restricting the power of federal worker unions. He will likely continue to serve as one of the few Republicans advocating for the federal workforce, including on issues of pay and benefits.
Elsewhere in Pennsylvania, Rep. Matt Cartwright, D, is leading in a race that has not yet been called. Cartwright has been the primary congressional advocate for wage grade federal workers over his time in office, while also speaking out against efforts to strip feds of their due process and collective bargaining rights.
Republicans held onto a seat in Texas’ 23rd congressional district, where Rep. Will Hurd, R, is retiring and Democrats thought they could win. The House is losing its point person for reforming the federal government’s IT systems and cybersecurity protections. Tony Gonzales, a Navy veteran who served as a Defense Department legislative fellow on Capitol Hill in the office of Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., defeated former Defense civilian Gina Ortiz Jones.
Another former fed, Rep. Abigail Spangberger, D-Va., barely held onto her seat in a competitive race. A former CIA analyst, Spangberger represents a significant number of federal workers and advocated for them during her first term. Elsewhere in Virginia, Republicans held onto the fifth congressional district with Bob Good defeating former executive branch employee Cameron Webb.
For Government Executive’s preview of these races, click here.