Until now, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), chair of the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee, has been the bane of federal government employees. Issa has skewered the performance of the IRS, the Justice Department, Health and Human Services and other agencies and regularly called officials on the carpet to answer for allegations of government waste and mismanagement.
Now, government workers and their union leaders may be facing a lot more heat beginning early next year, when Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) is almost certain to head up the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which oversees the federal work force.
Johnson is a relatively obscure freshman Tea Party conservative who rapidly moved up the minority ranks of the Homeland Security Committee and now may become chair when the GOP takes control of the Senate in January. In an interview with The Washington Post published on Monday, Johnson – one of the wealthiest members of Congress and an ardent fiscal conservative – offered some observations that should give government employees plenty of sleepless nights. They include:
- Federal employees are overpaid, even after a three-year freeze on their basic pay rates. “Studies I’ve seen in the past would indicate that is the case,” he said.
- Federal workers’ health care and retirement benefits should be open to review and modification. With many changes already made in the private sector to reduce employers’ costs, “I think it’s unrealistic for public-sector employees to believe they are immune from modifications to their pay and benefit package,” he said.
- The 2.1 million member federal civilian workforce is “way larger than it should be,” said Johnson – and he would favor downsizing. His deficit-reduction strategy would cut the federal workforce by 10 percent and reduce the number of federal contractors by 15 percent.
- “Whatever the size of the government, he thinks its workforce should not have collective-bargaining rights,” The Post piece says. “I really don’t think public-sector employees should be unionized,” said Johnson.
Johnson “favors revisiting the decision to allow airport security officers to unionize,” according to The Post, something that was a major victory for the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE). He acknowledged, however, “That talk of legislative action to revoke that authorization is ‘premature’ and not at the top of his agenda.”
The National Treasury Employees Union issued a cautious statement in response to Johnson’s statement on collective bargaining, while other major unions representing federal workers declined to comment.
“In the 114th Congress, the National Treasury Employees Union plans to advocate for federal workers to ensure fair pay, benefits and a safe and productive workplace,” said Colleen M. Kelley, the NTEU national president. “NTEU has long worked to make certain the government can attract and retain the most qualified employees, which requires proper funding, and to ensure that every employee is treated with dignity and respect.”
Johnson, an up-by-his-bootstraps multimillionaire businessman who made his fortune in plastics, used the Tea Party to launch his political career. Running a largely self-financed campaign, he won the 2010 GOP primary contest with 85 percent of the vote and went on to unseat Democratic incumbent senator Russ Feingold in the general election.
An admirer of the anti-government views of the late author and philosopher Ayn Rand, Johnson said he was motivated to challenge Feingold mostly because of the Democrat’s support of the Affordable Care Act, which Johnson called “the single greatest assault to our freedom in my lifetime.”
Since arriving in Washington, Johnson, 59, has frequently criticized the size and shape of the federal workforce. A member of the Senate Budget Committee, he advanced proposals for squeezing substantial savings at the expense of federal workers.
In his 2001 report on government spending, Johnson posed a number of recommendations, including recalculating federal annuities on the five highest years of salary instead of the highest three, phasing out the Federal Employee Retirement System Basic Benefit Plan, and freezing senior executive service bonuses for three years.
His assertion that federal workers are overpaid compared to the private sector is highly controversial, with many analysts arriving at different conclusions depending on the assumptions used in their calculations. For example, the Federal Salary Council, an advisory panel to the administration, said last month that white-collar federal employees on average earn 35.2 percent less than private-sector workers in comparable jobs.
The Congressional Budget Office concluded in 2012 that salaries are roughly comparable overall, “although with less educated federal employees at an advantage and more educated ones at a disadvantage,” according to The Washington Post. That same year, the Government Accountability Office concluded no one approach is definitive.
There are a little more than two million civilian employees, according to government figures and the Partnership for Public Service. But that total doesn’t include postal workers or some employees of the Department of Homeland Security.
While the total has fluctuated in recent years, the overall government workforce is at one of its lowest levels over the past four decades. Critics note, however, that consultants and contractors make up a parallel universe of government workers.
Whether Johnson would be willing to take on labor unions over the rights of federal employees to collective bargaining remains to be seen. Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker triggered recall elections in 2012 after he pushed through a budget that stripped state employees of some collective bargaining rights.
This story was updated at 5:45 p.m. Monday to reflect the views of the National Treasury Employees Union.
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