Lawmakers expressed at a hearing Thursday bipartisan acceptance for the utility of federal union members conducting representational activity on the taxpayers’ dime, but Republicans drew the line at those who do no government work whatsoever.
Subcommittee leaders on the House Oversight and Veterans' Affairs panels promised reforms to the practice of official time, saying it is being used in excess to the detriment of government efficiency. Lawmakers called the joint hearing after a Government Accountability Office report found the Veterans Affairs Department maintains no agency-wide procedures for recording and tracking official time use. VA employees reported just more than 1 million hours on official time in fiscal 2015, though GAO called that data unreliable.
“I want to be clear about one thing,” said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., who chairs the oversight committee’s panel on government operations. “Today’s hearing is not about whether federal employees should or should not participate in official time. We recognize, I recognize, the importance of that particular activity. Today’s hearing is really about what is reasonable and what is in the best interest of the taxpayers, who foot the bill for official time.”
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Rep. Jodey Arrington, R-Texas, who heads the Economic Opportunity panel on the VA committee, recognized official time is lawful and said he did not want to “completely discredit” its use. He said, however, he was troubled by GAO’s findings and found it “insane” VA had not reached a solution to a longstanding problem.
“Are people taking advantage of this system? I think they are,” Arrington said. “I know we all agree VA should place needs of veterans above all else. I’m very concerned in the current environment this is not the case.”
Democrats and union representatives defended official time as necessary to protect whistleblowers, efficiently solve workplace disputes and as a means for the rank and file to communicate solutions to management.
“But for the work of these unions we would not be able to train appropriately, we would not be able to defend and protect whistleblowers, we would not be able to innovate,” said Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, the ranking member on Arrington’s subcommittee.
Arrington pushed J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, to concede allowing employees to work 100 percent on official time is not reasonable and necessary for the public interest. Cox defended those employees as conducting work that benefits the government, not the union. Kim McLeod, VA’s acting executive director of labor-management relations, said the department has worked at the national level to “put some limitations” on completely official time employees. She added she could not speak to negotiations that may be happening at the local level.
“I will defend your right to use official time,” Meadows said. “But I will not defend employees using it 100 percent of the time.”
Rep. Gerry Connolly, a congressman representing a large federal employee population and Meadows’ Democratic counterpart, said the committee was focusing on the wrong issue. GAO and VA have not uncovered any abuse of official time, Connolly noted, saying his colleagues should instead focus on President Trump’s hiring freeze.
Connolly presented his fellow committee members with the number of VA vacancies that would not get filled in each of their districts. VA has exempted a large swath of its workforce from the freeze, but McLeod noted some work conducted by the Veterans Benefits Administration “won’t get done so veterans won’t have those services.”
Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-N.J., said employees on official time represented just one-five hundredth of total bargaining employee hours.
“It doesn’t really seem like a big daggone deal when we think about all the other challenges facing the VA,” Watson Coleman said.
Still, Meadows promised to reform the practice.
“We can’t afford to get this wrong,” he said. “And quite frankly, we’ve been getting it wrong for far too long.”