What Democrats’ Senate Majority Means for Federal Agencies
With control of the Senate and its committees, federal workers can expect a slew of changes in legislative and oversight priorities.
A twin set of victories in the Georgia runoff elections has given Democrats control of the Senate in the 117th Congress, setting the stage for new priorities and legislation that could dramatically impact oversight of federal agencies and the employees who work for them.
Both Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff emerged victorious in their elections this week, giving Democrats 50 members in the upper chamber. With Vice President-elect Kamala Harris casting all tie-breaking votes, Democrats will have control of all committees and the bills that come up for votes on the floor. That could mark a dramatic shift in the type of legislation and hearings committees draft and hold. Of particular interest will be the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, that will now be chaired by its outgoing ranking member, Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich.
In recent months, Peters has led congressional Democrats’ charge against USPS reforms implemented by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, saying the changes were damaging a critical public institution. Peters has also pushed for more protections for federal workers during the coronavirus pandemic and stronger collective bargaining rights for employee unions, and against what he has described as President Trump’s “blunt policy choices” on civil service matters.
A Peters aide said the senator will continue to focus on postal issues as chairman, particularly in ensuring the five vacant board slots are filled with Democrats committed to a public institution. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy has focused too heavily on cutting costs, they said, and Peters plans to hold leadership accountable for its decision making. On a governmentwide level, Peters will focus on the issues of Trump’s Schedule F executive order and Trump appointees who burrow into their agencies. Aides suggested the most immediate elements of that work will take place at the executive branch level.
“If there’s other steps to shore up civil service, we will have a little more time to address longer-term problems,” a committee aide said. The aide acknowledged lawmakers and the Biden administration will have to engender “a lot of trust to rebuild relationships with federal employees” after Trump.
Peters and Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who will serve as the committee’s ranking member, have already discussed the need to investigate retrospectively how the Trump administration handled the COVID-19 pandemic and address what agencies can do to be better prepared in the future.
Jessica Klement, the staff vice president for advocacy at the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, said she expects a change in priorities at HSGAC. The outgoing chairman, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., focused primarily on regulation and homeland security. Peters and his staff have shown a much greater interest in federal workforce issues, including by leading the charge against implementation of Trump’s Schedule F executive order, tracking nominees to boards like the one that governs the Thrift Savings Plan and U.S. Postal Service reform.
In addition to committee leadership, the Senate majority gives Democrats the capacity to force federal agencies to unwind some of the work they did in the closing months of Trump’s presidency. The Congressional Review Act allows Congress to eliminate by a simple majority any rule the Trump administration propagated towards the end of its tenure. The 115th Congress used the authority to successfully revoke 14 regulations issued under President Obama. The Democratic majority will also give President-elect Biden more leeway in getting his cabinet and other appointees confirmed, though the timing of that process could face delays as Democrats will not control the chamber until the declared victors in Georgia are seated and Harris is sworn in as vice president.
The change in Senate control has federal workforce groups more optimistic about what they can accomplish. Jacque Simon, public policy director at the American Federation of Government Employees, said the union will push for the repeal of key Veterans Affairs Department reform laws that made it easier to discipline workers and for veterans to receive care in the private sector. Both laws passed with bipartisan support before Trump signed them into law, but have since faced criticism for their implementation. The VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act has come under particular fire for its targeting of low-level staff, failure to protect whistleblowers and unlawful use. The Mission Act, which boosted the use of non-VA health care facilities for veterans, will enter a new phase under Biden as a scheduled commission to identify department facilities for closure is set to be stood up.
As it has for years, AFGE will push to reverse the recent trend of small pay increases for federal employees, roll back cuts to retirement benefits and expand the number of workers eligible for the full suite of civil service protections.
“The abysmal pay adjustments and pay freezes in the last decade have undermined living standards of federal employees and it is time to restore losses,” Simon said.
Klement also said she expects a push for more sizable pay raises, particularly to return to parity with military salary bumps. Appropriations packages, of which pay raises are usually a part, will still require some Republican input and support to overcome the 60-vote filibuster threshold. Agencies have mostly enjoyed at least some budget increases in the Trump years thanks to bipartisan budget agreements that increased both defense and non-defense spending. With control of both chambers, Democrats will continue to push for the funding bumps for domestic agencies they have long prioritized.
Federal employee advocates have met regularly with Biden’s team, both prior to the election and after his victory. People involved in those conversations said transition officials were eager to listen but did not offer much detail of their plans, aside from indicating Biden would likely unwind Trump’s executive orders targeting the federal workforce and their unions. Office of Management and Budget Director-designate Neera Tanden met with federal and private sector unions on Thursday, but promptly left the virtual conference after about a minute citing an emergency call with the president-elect.