Cummings Speaks at NTEU’s Legislative Conference
Cummings Speaks at NTEU’s Legislative Conference
Washington, DC (Feb. 4, 2015) – Today, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Ranking Member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, delivered the following speech, as prepared for delivery, at today’s Annual Legislative Conference of the National Treasury Employees Union:
Ranking Member Elijah E. Cummings
NTEU’s Annual Legislative Conference 2015
February 4, 2015
I thank my good friend, President Colleen Kelley, for your graciousness in inviting me here today to speak at the Annual Legislative Conference of the National Treasury Employees Union. I also thank you for your incredible work in representing the vital interests of 150,000 federal employee members in 31 agencies.
I am pleased to be joining a fellow Member and colleague in the People’s House and the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Congressman Jason Chaffetz, the new Chairman of that Committee. I congratulate you, Mr. Chaffetz, on your appointment.
I want to thank the nearly 400 NTEU members who are in the audience, some of whom have traveled long distances to be here today. I am humbled and impressed by your commitment to public service and to doing good for the American people.
I am grateful for the important work that each of you does everyday for your fellow citizens. You are the dedicated men and women who provide vital services to Americans, protect our borders, and ensure that our food and drugs are safe.
I am honored to be speaking with you today to discuss important legislative issues that already have, and may in the future, impact your lives.
Past Assaults on Federal Workers
These past few years have been difficult for federal workers. As part of the federal government’s efforts to reduce the deficit and pay for unemployment benefits for millions of workers, federal employees have had to sacrifice nearly $140 billion as a result of a three-year pay freeze and pay cuts in the form of increased retirement contributions for newly hired employees. They also had to endure sequestration cuts and furloughs and a sixteen-day government shutdown.
Legislation also required budget cuts, pay freeze extensions, arbitrary workforce cuts, increases in retirement contributions, decreases in retirement benefits, and the elimination of federal pensions.
Budget cuts have caused the federal government to eliminate jobs for the last three years in a row. For 2014, the government lost 19,000 jobs, not including postal jobs. Continued job losses in the federal government may endanger agency missions and disrupt vital services to the public.
These events, as well as relentless attacks on the pay and benefits of federal workers, have caused federal workforce morale to drop to historic lows.
The Partnership for Public Service found that worker morale and engagement fell each of the last four years to an all-time low. Satisfied and engaged federal workers are critical to achieving government missions and delivering vital public services.
Congress cannot continue to target the federal workforce to achieve deficit reduction without causing serious consequences. Our government and the American people need and deserve a motivated and engaged federal workforce.
What to Expect in the 114th Congress
We know what happened to federal workers in the last Congress, but what can they expect in this Congress?
With all due respect to my friend and colleague from Utah, unfortunately, I believe we will see an unprecedented and extremely damaging assault by congressional Republicans to reduce worker pay, gut their due process protections, and slash the benefits that they and their families rely on every single day.
I fear that much of that kind of legislation will move through the Oversight Committee, but I am committed to defending federal workers to the best of my ability.
For example, we will likely see the introduction of bills to reduce the size of the federal workforce. It’s still early in the new Congress, but bills have already been introduced that would cut the government budget by up to 5%. Other bills would cut the federal workforce by 10% through attrition and slash the civilian defense workforce by 15%.
Sequestration budget cuts are scheduled to return for fiscal year 2016, unless Congress modifies them. I am concerned that House Republicans will propose increasing the budget cap for the Department of Defense and then offset this increase with even deeper cuts in non-defense agency budgets. They will likely use a Reconciliation bill as the vehicle for finding savings, which may include provisions for decreasing retirement benefits. We could also see legislation that would eliminate federal pensions for new hires.
Weakening of Due Process Protections
Last year, Congress passed, and the President signed, a bill that gave the VA Secretary greater authority to fire executives without notice or an opportunity to respond to charges. We may see legislation that would apply these provisions to rank-and-file employees government wide.
I think we need to be very careful when we are considering legislation that would reduce due process rights for federal workers. These due process protections exist for a reason. They date back to 1883 when our government was trying to address abuses and corruption in the federal government. Without the protections of the Pendleton Act and other statutes, there is a very real risk of politicizing our federal workforce, returning our civil service back to a system of patronage.
Some propose making federal employees “at will” employees. They argue that the federal personnel system is too protective of employee rights, making it difficult to get rid of poor performers. They claim that we need to revise the law. My response is that the tools to deal with poor performers are there, but that managers are not using them.
In a 2009 study of how the federal government addresses poor performers, the Merit Systems Protection Board, concluded that failure to address poor performance lies with managers:
“Addressing poor performance by merely changing a law that sets forth how to demote or remove a poor performer is not a feasible solution. Rather, the Government must concentrate on managing the performance of its employee.”
Many of my Republican colleagues support a transition from the General Schedule system to a pay-for-performance system.
One of the key attributes of the GS system is that it helps ensure that people get “equal work for equal pay.” I fully embrace this principle. One of the indications that the GS system is working is data from the Office of Personnel Management showing that the gender pay gap has shrunk dramatically over the past 20 years, from 30% to 11%.
Another thing I want to point out about pay-for-performance is that the Defense Department already tried implementing it through the “National Security Personnel System,” but this system failed. Congress repealed the authority because of lack of transparency, bias, and subjectivity in performance ratings.
Last Congress, legislation to change the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program included proposals to convert the government contribution portion of the premium costs into a voucher. As you know, vouchers could be used to shift the burden of medical costs onto employees, especially if they are indexed to the Consumer Price Index and not the medical inflation rate, which is often much higher.
Oversight Committee Priorities
We may also see legislation that would require agencies to fire federal employees who are delinquent on their taxes. But this legislation would actually be counterproductive. Instead of enabling the payment of bills, federal employees terminated from their jobs would be unable to do so.
My priority is to do whatever I can to help federal workers obtain fair compensation and meaningful pay raises. The federal workforce is lagging far behind the private sector in pay increases. In fact, your pay is not even keeping pace with the growth of inflation. That is unacceptable.
President Obama’s Budget for next year recommends a 1.3% pay raise for federal employees. I believe this is too low.
I am a cosponsor with Representative Connolly of the FAIR Act which would raise federal worker pay by 3.8%.
I will also continue to strongly support whistleblower protections. We need to be ever vigilant in protecting the rights of the brave men and women who speak out about waste, fraud, abuse, and threats to health and safety.
This past September, I filed an amicus brief—along with Senators Grassley and Wyden, and Congressmen Issa, Farenthold and Lynch—in support of whistleblower Robert MacLean’s appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Mr. MacLean was a former air marshal with the Transportation Security Administration who was terminated for publicly disclosing that the agency planned on grounding air marshals from long distance flights due to budget constraints and despite knowledge of imminent Al Qaeda attacks. I am pleased to report that the Supreme Court recently ruled in Mr. MacLean’s favor.
I am also working on introducing legislation that would strengthen enforcement of antidiscrimination and whistleblower retaliation laws. This is a top priority for me.
Congress needs to devote resources and attention to strengthening recruitment and retention in the federal government. We need to attract the best and the brightest, otherwise we will be in danger of making federal government the employer of last resort.
We also need to guard against challenges to merit systems principles and due process rights. We need to ensure that the federal hiring process is as open, fair, and competitive as it should be.
I want to thank you all for the opportunity to share my thoughts about the work and activities my colleagues and I will focus on in this new Congress.
Contact: Jennifer Hoffman, Communications Director, (202)-226-5181.