Making Continuing Appropriations During a Government Shutdownby Senator Orrin G. Hatch
Posted on 2014-06-11
HATCH. I ask unanimous consent that the order for the quorum call
The PRESIDING OFFICER. Without objection, it is so ordered.
[[Page S3580]] Federal Employee Unions Mr. HATCH. Madam President, I rise to speak on a matter of great importance that seems to have slipped through the cracks of the public's consciousness. However, with the growing furor over the recent scandal at the Veterans' Administration, I expect more and more people will be made aware of it.
I don't think it is unreasonable to argue that most Americans would be outraged to learn the Federal Government pays tens of millions of dollars every year to pay hundreds, if not thousands, of government employees not to work. This practice used to be called featherbedding. ``The term `featherbedding' originally referred to any person who is pampered, coddled, or excessively rewarded.'' It was later used to describe certain labor relations practices. According to Wikipedia: The modern use of the term in the labor relations setting began in the United States railroad industry, which used feathered mattresses in sleeping cars. Railway labor unions, confronted with changing technology which led to widespread unemployment, sought to preserve jobs by negotiating contracts which required employers to compensate workers to do little or no work or which required complex and time- consuming work rules so as to generate a full day's work for an employee who otherwise would not remain employed.
Congress tried to put an end to the practice in the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act amendments, which defined and outlawed featherbedding. However, the U.S. Supreme Court has narrowly defined the terminology, leaving most practices undisturbed.
The featherbedding-like practice I am referring to today is most often called official time, wherein government employees--who are highly compensated, often including overtime pay--are paid to perform no work for the government, only work for the benefit of their unions. These ``employees'' are not union employees, nor are they paid by the union. Instead, they are union members paid by the taxpayers to work full time for the union while working for the Federal Government.
Of course, this practice also goes on in the private sector. However, in the private sector, the featherbedding comes off of the bottom line and is negotiated as a measure of ensuring labor peace and in exchange for other union concessions. In the Federal Government, where the bottom line is the taxpayer and where unions are not permitted to strike, this practice is a way for weak managers to use government funds to reward public sector union political supporters and financial contributors, passing the costs along to the unknowing taxpayer for services not rendered. In the private sector, official time is carefully monitored and controlled. In the Federal sector, managers generally look the other way.
According to the Office of Personnel Management, or OPM, during fiscal year 2011 unions represented 1,202,733 nonpostal Federal civil service bargaining unit employees--an increase of more than 17,000 employees compared to fiscal year 2010. In that same year agencies reported that bargaining unit employees spent nearly 3.4 million hours on official time--an increase of nearly 10 percent compared to the previous year. How much money are we talking about, and why should American taxpayers shoulder the entire burden if the official time is only for union work? Some may wonder what this has to do with the VA scandal. I don't think it is a coincidence that the VA--which is plagued by incompetence, dishonesty, and bureaucratic ineptitude--utilizes the practice of official time more than any other Federal agency, according to OPM. In 2011 the VA reported paying out nearly 1 million hours in official time--an increase of more than 23 percent over the previous year. The cost of official time in 2011 amounted to nearly $43 million. That is $43 million paid out to VA ``employees'' to do union work full time. Wall Street Journal Editorial Board writer Kimberley Strassel noted a few weeks back: The VA boasts one of the largest federal workforces, and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki bragged in 2010 that two-thirds of it is unionized. That's a whopping 200,000 union members, represented by the likes of the American Federation of Government Employees and the Service Employees International Union.
I ask unanimous consent that the article be printed in the Record following my remarks.
Union supporters often lament that under Federal law Federal employee unions are relatively toothless, especially when compared to the very powerful State employee unions. However, as Ms. Strassel noted, given its size and influence, the VA union may be an exception to that rule.
Once again, two-thirds of the VA workforce is unionized, and the agency has paid more than $40 million in salaries to full-time union workers in a single year. That has to have an impact on the VA's efficiency. And that is for workers who don't even work--except for the union.
Obviously, the inefficiency of the VA has recently been the subject of a very high-profile public debate. However, the impact unions have had on the VA's operation was being talked about well before news of the recent scandal broke. For example, Senators Portman and Coburn sent a letter to former VA Secretary Shinseki in 2013 noting that the vast majority of VA employees on official time were trained nurses, instrument technicians, pharmacists, dental assistants, or therapists. In other words, these were employees hired specifically to fulfill roles in direct support of veterans. Yet, instead of caring for veterans, processing claims, and helping to eliminate the horrendous backlog, these employees were being paid to do union work full time-- all at the expense of taxpayers. On top of that, union-negotiated work rules over things such as seniority and job classification have contributed to the bureaucratic nightmare at the VA. In addition, the unions have been the most vocal opponents of any reform proposals that would give veterans access to outside health care.
While it may be overstating the unions' influence to assign to them the blame for the entire VA scandal, it is clear that these unions have at least contributed to the problems we are now seeing at the agency. They are at least partially to blame for the backlog in veterans' claims. They are at least partially to blame for the failed VA bureaucracy. They are at least partially to blame for the failure of reasonable attempts to reform the agency in the past, and it is almost impossible to reform it the way it is currently run.
I wish I could say this problem is isolated at the VA. Unfortunately, there is at least one other scandal-plagued agency with a similar union problem. I am talking, of course, about the IRS.
We are all pretty familiar with the IRS targeting scandal. By its own admission, the agency was targeting Tea Party groups in the runup to the elections in both 2010 and 2012.
Like the VA, the IRS consists of a heavily unionized workforce. About 66 percent of IRS employees belong to the National Treasury Employees Union, or NTEU.
It shouldn't surprise anyone to learn that the NTEU is extremely active in politics, having twice endorsed President Obama. During the 2010 election cycle, when the IRS first began targeting conservative groups, the NTEU raised over $600,000 through its PAC, almost all of which went to Democrats. In the next election, in 2012, the NTEU PAC raised more than $700,000, 94 percent of which went to Democrats. In other words, during the same campaign cycles in which the IRS was targeting conservative organizations--organizations that were critical of the President, his administration, and in many cases the IRS itself--for harassment and extra scrutiny, the union that represents nearly two-thirds of IRS employees was busy raising and donating well over $1 million to Democratic candidates. And we wonder why the IRS-- which should not be partisan in any way, shape, or form--is filled with partisanship. We should not have unions at the IRS or at the VA. Is it any surprise that the agency found itself predisposed toward harming conservative organizations or their causes? Of course, the IRS has its own issues with the practice of paying out official time. Indeed, as of 2011 there were at least 200 IRS employees working full time for their union--all at taxpayers' expense. In that same year, the agency paid out more than 625,000 hours of official time. The total cost of these union activities was roughly around $27 million. But that is only the beginning. That is $27 million in a single year paid [[Page S3581]] to ``employees'' of the Federal Government who did nothing but union work. That is simply preposterous.
As I said, if the American people understood that this type of fleecing of the taxpayers goes on every day, they would be outraged.
Current law allows most Federal employees to be represented by a union. There are, however, some exceptions--and good reasons for these exceptions. Most of these exceptions are for agencies that perform a national security function or other highly sensitive work. One would think the IRS would fit in that category. One would think the VA would fit in that category. For example, we don't allow employees at the FBI, the CIA, or the Secret Service to be unionized. There is good reason for that: We don't need partisan political activities in those agencies. But we don't need them in the IRS or the Veterans' Administration either. We also don't allow employees at the GAO or the Federal Labor Relations Authority to unionize.
In days to come, Congress is going to have to take a hard look at reforming both the Veterans' Administration and the IRS. One of the questions we are going to have to ask ourselves is whether these agencies, with their important and sensitive missions and their poor performance in the recent past, should be added to the list of agencies not permitted to unionize, not permitted to be partisan. And anybody who doesn't understand that doesn't understand anything about politics.
In addition, as we continually look for ways to improve the efficiency of our government, we will need to examine the overall practice of official time and determine whether it should be eliminated entirely. I, for one, don't believe taxpayers ought to be footing the bill for union work. I think the majority of the American people, if given an opportunity to fully understand this practice and the abuse it entails, would agree with me.
One thing is for sure: If what we have seen at the VA and the IRS is in any way representative of the influence unions have on government agencies, drastic changes are going to be necessary. How can any American citizen feel the IRS is above politics when it is run by a union? And we all know that unions support almost 100 percent one party over the other. How can we feel the VA is going to be handled right when it has a union representing it and determining all the workloads? I have talked to the IRS Commissioners since I have been on the Finance Committee, and they admit that to try to correct or punish an IRS employee who is out of control and not doing what is right takes upward of a year if you are lucky. That is why there are all kinds of politics in these agencies and they act with impunity in advancing what really are liberal causes.
If there are any two agencies that should not have unions in them, one ought to be the IRS and the other ought to be the Veterans' Administration.
I was raised in the union movement. I learned a trade. I went through a formal apprenticeship program, and I became a journeyman. I am proud of that. I believe unions have a place in our society, but they have become more and more partisan. It is reported that 40 percent of union members are Republicans. Yet almost 100 percent of every dime that is given in politics is given to Democrats. So by any measure we have to say that these folks are partisan, which I think is their right. But should we have partisan control of agencies such as the IRS, which everybody has to deal with at one time or another in their life, and the Veterans' Administration, which is in dire jeopardy right now because of the way it is being run? I have been very much trying to do a straightforward investigation of the IRS and these accusations that have been thrown at it, many of which are true. The more I get into it, the more I realize it is being run in a partisan way for one party when it should be run in a nonpartisan way--for neither party. I am going to do something about it, and I hope the American people pay attention to it because I think most people, including younger Members, would be outraged to know that there is partisanship at these agencies that is not just average partisanship. It is blatant partisanship. The more I get into it, the more I realize that is true.
Madam President, I ask unanimous consent to have printed in the Record the Wall Street Journal article that I previously referred to.
There being no objection, the material was ordered to be printed in the Record, as follows: [From the Wall Street Journal, May 29, 2014] Big Labor's VA Choke Hold (By Kimberley A. Strassel) We know with certainty that there is at least one person the Department of Veterans Affairs is serving well. That would be the president of local lodge 1798 of the National Federation of Federal Employees.
The Federal Labor Relations Authority, the agency that mediates federal labor disputes, earlier this month ruled in favor of this union president, in a dispute over whether she need bother to show up at her workplace--the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Martinsburg, W.Va. According to FLRA documents, this particular VA employee is 100% ``official time''--D.C. parlance for federal employees who work every hour of every work day for their union, at the taxpayer's expense.
In April 2012, this, ahem, VA ``employee'' broke her ankle and declared that she now wanted to do her nonwork for the VA entirely from the comfort of her home. Veterans Affairs attempted a compromise: Perhaps she could, pretty please, come in two days a week? She refused, and complained to the FLRA that the VA was interfering with her right to act as a union official. The VA failed to respond to the complaint in the required time (perhaps too busy caring for actual veterans) and so the union boss summarily won her case.
The VA battle is only just starting, but any real reform inevitably ends with a fight over organized labor. Think of it as the federal version of Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan and other states where elected officials have attempted to rein in the public-sector unions that have hijacked government agencies for their own purpose. Fixing the VA requires first breaking labor's grip, and the unions are already girding for that fight.
Federal labor unions are generally weak by comparison to state public-sector unions, though the VA might be an exception. The VA boasts one of the largest federal workforces and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki bragged in 2010 that two-thirds of it is unionized. That's a whopping 200,000 union members, represented by the likes of the American Federation of Government Employees and the Service Employees International Union. And this is government-run health care-- something unions know a lot about from organizing health workers in the private sector. Compared with most D.C. unions (which organize for better parking spots) the VA houses a serious union shop.
The Bush administration worked to keep federal union excesses in check; Obama administration officials have viewed contract ``negotiations'' as a way to reward union allies. Federal unions can't bargain for wages or benefits, but the White House has made it up to them.
Manhattan Institute scholar Diana Furchtgott-Roth recently detailed Office of Personnel Management numbers obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by Rep. Phil Gingrey (R., Ga.). On May 25, Ms. Furchtgott-Roth reported on MarketWatch that the VA in 2012 paid 258 employees to be 100 percent ``full-time,'' receiving full pay and benefits to do only union work. Seventeen had six-figure salaries, up to $132,000. According to the Office of Personnel Management, the VA paid for 988,000 hours of ``official'' time in fiscal 2011, a 23 percent increase from 2010.
Moreover, as Sens. Rob Portman (R., Ohio) and Tom Coburn (R., Okla.) noted in a 2013 letter to Mr. Shinseki, the vast majority of these ``official'' timers were nurses, instrument technicians pharmacists, dental assistants and therapists, who were being paid to do union work even as the VA tried to fill hundreds of jobs and paid overtime to other staff.
As for patient-case backlogs, the unions have helped in their creation. Contract-negotiated work rules over job classifications and duties and seniorities are central to the ``bureaucracy'' that fails veterans. More damaging has been the union hostility to any VA attempt to give veterans access to alternative sources of care--which the unions consider a direct job threat. The American Federation of Government Employees puts out regular press releases blasting any ``outsourcing'' of VA work to non-VA-union members.
The VA scandal is now putting an excruciating spotlight on the most politically sensitive agency in D.C., and the unions are worried about where this is headed. They watched in alarm as an overwhelming 390 House members--including 160 Democrats--voted on May 21 to give the VA more power to fire senior executives, a shot over the rank-and-file's bow. They watched in greater alarm as Mr. Shinseki said the VA would be letting more veterans seek care at private facilities in areas where the department's capacity is limited.
This is a first step toward a reform being drafted by Sens. Coburn, John McCain (R., Ariz.) and Richard Burr (R., N.C.), which would give veterans a card allowing them health services at facilities of their choosing. The union fear is that Democrats, in a tough election year, will be pressured toward reforms that break labor's VA stronghold.
Not surprisingly, Sen. Bernie Sanders (D., Vt.), chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, has promised his own ``reform.'' Odds [[Page S3582]] are it will echo the unions' call to simply throw more money at the problem. Any such bill should be viewed as Democrats once again putting the interests of their union allies ahead of veterans.
Madam President, I yield the floor.
The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Indiana.