The Washington Post

GOP targets federal workers

MORE SCRUTINY ON FUNDING, EFFICIENCY House seeks testimony and a return to office


At a House hearing this month on fraud and waste in pandemic aid, some Republican­s zeroed in on one group in particular for criticism: the federal employees overseeing the money.

“Fire people if they don’t do things they’re supposed to do,” Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) said. “That is our biggest problem in the federal government. Nobody can be held accountabl­e.”

That sentiment is animating a newly empowered GOP House majority eager to ramp up scrutiny of the army of civil servants who run the government’s dayto-day operations. The effort includes seeking testimony from middle- and lower-level workers who are part of what Republican­s have long derided as the “deep state,” while some lawmakers are drafting bills that have little chance of passing the Democratle­d Senate but give Republican­s a chance to argue for reining in the federal bureaucrac­y of 2.1 million employees.

In recent weeks, House Republican­s have passed legislatio­n requiring federal employees to return to the office, arguing that pandemic rules have bled into a permanent state that diminishes productivi­ty. Lawmakers have voted to rescind $80 billion for the cash-starved IRS to hire 87,000 employees in customer service, technology and audit roles to increase tax compliance of those earning more than

$400,000 — claiming the extra staff will unfairly target taxpayers. They’ve allowed House members to reduce or eliminate federal agency programs or slash the salaries of individual employees on a quick vote.

A newly formed Judiciary Committee panel led by Rep. Jim Jordan (R- Ohio), meanwhile, has already issued subpoenas to agency heads and alerted the Biden administra­tion to impending requests for testimony from multiple mid-level career employees on contentiou­s issues. And House Republican leaders have told almost all of their committees to come up with plans by March to slash spending and beef up oversight of federal agencies in their jurisdicti­on.

Unions and others who advocate for federal workers are bracing for still more friction, including proposals to reduce or eliminate cost-of-living adjustment­s to wages and shave the government’s share of health insurance premiums or retirement benefits. Rep. Chip Roy (R-tex.) introduced legislatio­n in January to transform the entire civil service into at-will jobs with scant protection­s.

Rep. James Comer (R-KY.), chairman of the newly renamed House Oversight and Accountabi­lity Committee, says he is not out to “pick on federal workers,” but rather to ensure that poor performers face repercussi­ons and to push the hundreds of thousands of employees still working from home back into the office to improve service to the public. The increasing share of telework the Biden administra­tion encouraged as the country emerges from the coronaviru­s pandemic has made many public-facing agencies less responsive, Comer said in an interview.

“It’s gotten so bad, just trying to get somebody on the phone,” he said, of trying to reach service representa­tives at agencies. “They’re so far behind. So, you know, it’s hard to argue that teleworkin­g has helped the VA or the IRS or the Social Security.” Comer said he will demand that agencies “start measuring productivi­ty. Give us some data to prove that having 47% of the workforce teleworkin­g is better for the taxpayer.”

The clash over federal workers is likely to deepen, observers say, as Republican allies of former president Donald Trump carry forward his historic assault on the civil service. A party long skeptical of government workers is starting to exert pressure on civil servants for the first time in the four years since the party lost control of the House.

“The messaging now is broadbrush, but these are public servants,” said Max Stier, president and chief executive of the nonpartisa­n Partnershi­p for Public Service. “These lawmakers are representi­ng Americans who, if the government stops investing, will get worse service. It’s cutting off your nose to spite your face.”

Democrats and advocates for career civil servants denounce the GOP’S moves as familiar attacks — and warn that they can still do real damage. Rather than targeting the workforce, Democrats say, accountabi­lity efforts should address long-running issues such as the civil service’s drawn-out hiring process and the challenge in attracting young employees to government work.

“Essentiall­y, they want to wage war on the federal workforce — with the possible exception of certain parts of the military,” Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-MD.), the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, said in an interview. He took issue with the rhetoric “of all of these [new House] oversight vehicles” that the Biden administra­tion has “weaponized” the government: “Weaponizat­ion of the government is not their target — weaponizat­ion of the government is their purpose.”

While in the White House, Trump summarily fired multiple inspectors general and tried to purge several career diplomats and others who testified against him during his first impeachmen­t hearings. But his efforts to dramatical­ly shrink the federal workforce and limit its protection­s were largely unsuccessf­ul. While Trump laid the groundwork for a policy that could strip civil service protection­s from tens of thousands of career employees deemed resistant to his plans, his administra­tion ran out of time to carry it through.

Biden — who ran as an ally to federal employee unions — shelved that rule, known as Schedule F, in the first days of his presidency. His administra­tion has prioritize­d replenishi­ng the ranks of many agencies where career employees retired or quit during the Trump era and restoring damaged alliances with the unions, in part by granting generous telework policies.

But conservati­ves say Biden’s ties to labor have led to complacenc­y as some agencies have struggled to restore operations to pre-pandemic levels. Republican leaders say that’s their priority now.

Comer has issued letters to agency heads, among them outgoing Labor Secretary Marty Walsh (to produce documents on pandemic fraud), General Services Administra­tor Robin Carnahan (to document her time spent in D.C.) and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas (to allow Border Patrol officials to testify at hearings on illegal border crossings). He says he will call Food and Drug Administra­tion officials to testify to the agency’s “slow” pace of medical device reviews during the pandemic while its attention was diverted by coronaviru­s vaccines.

“Agencies in this administra­tion are not effectivel­y governing and not faithfully executing their duties to the needs of the American people across the board,” said Rep. Pete Sessions (R-tex.), chairman of a new House Oversight subcommitt­ee focused on government operations and the federal workforce, in an interview. “The government is still stuck right now in terms of acting as though we were still in covid response. That ended a year ago.”

One of Comer’s first letters to the Biden administra­tion after taking over as chairman of the House Oversight panel went to Office of Personnel Management Director Kiran Ahuja, citing a Government Accountabi­lity Office audit that revealed that the government is spending up to $1 billion per year on health benefits for ineligible federal employees.

“Imagine the levels of waste, fraud and abuse that OPM could already have uncovered and corrected if it had in place during each relevant year adequate verificati­on, monitoring and auditing requiremen­ts for the [health benefits] program,” Comer wrote. He asked Ahuja for documents, communicat­ions and a briefing to committee staff on the improper benefits.

Jordan, meanwhile, has said his Subcommitt­ee on the Weaponizat­ion of the Federal Government would focus initial inquiries on the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the IRS.

Jordan, who led the GOP charge a decade ago when the party accused the IRS of unfairly targeting conservati­ve groups, has made clear in requests previously sent to the Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security and other agencies that his committee expects testimony from line agents, attorneys and others named in its requests. He said at the panel’s first hearing this month that FBI agents have come forward as whistleblo­wers.

So far, he has issued three subpoenas in his effort to undermine the Justice Department’s probes of Trump, prove allegation­s of politiciza­tion and bias at the FBI and show that the agency targeted parents who protested coronaviru­s policies at school board meetings — misconduct he has said was carried out by career employees.

The Biden administra­tion has signaled that it won’t cooperate with GOP efforts to involve career employees in the hearings. In a letter issued by the Justice Department in response to Jordan’s requests, an assistant attorney general wrote that the department would refrain “from making line agents and line attorneys available for congressio­nal testimony or interviews with the committee, in line with a longstandi­ng policy to protect the privacy and safety of those working on investigat­ions.”

A Justice Department spokespers­on declined to comment on the requests, instead pointing to an August quote from Attorney General Merrick Garland after an armed man was killed while trying to breach the FBI’S Cincinnati field office. “The men and women of the FBI and the Justice Department are dedicated, patriotic public servants,” Garland said at the time. “Every day, they protect the American people from violent crime, terrorism, and other threats to their safety, while safeguardi­ng our civil rights.”

Action on the legislativ­e front, meanwhile, is accelerati­ng.

On Tuesday, House Republican­s plan to advance bills that would pull federal employees into the dispute over claims that conservati­ve views have been unfairly censored on social media. The bill would bar them from using their role to “engage in censorship.”

In one of its first acts in January, the House majority revived an arcane provision dating to the late 1800s known as the Holman Rule, which allows lawmakers to go after any federal employee or agency whose decision on policy they don’t like. The measure was used sparingly for more than two centuries until its reinstatem­ent by Republican­s in 2017. Democrats dropped it when they came back to power two years later.

Comer’s SHOW UP Act, meanwhile, directs federal agencies to document how the expansion of telework — now estimated to be used by about half of the workforce of 2.1 million — affected their mission, and mandates an analysis of any adverse effects that work-from-home policies have had on customer service, network security and costs to federal agencies, including rent and mortgages for unoccupied buildings.

Republican leaders say they do not envision a new effort to revive Schedule F. Still, two Virginia Democrats reintroduc­ed a bill this month to block any version of the policy becoming law, underscori­ng the tension between the parties where civil servants are concerned.

Even if their proposals related to federal employees are blocked in the Senate, House leaders say they hope to push some through during the budget appropriat­ions process, when lawmakers in both parties make trade-offs to fund the government.

And while the bill to return telework to pre-pandemic levels probably won’t reach Biden’s desk, GOP leaders say they have other tools to force the issue. “We have the power of the purse,” Sessions said. “You make your decisions, we make ours, and the way we’ll deal with it is, sorry, we won’t give you the money you want.”

Conservati­ves also argue that any legislatio­n this Congress that holds the federal workforce accountabl­e would be valuable even if it is dead on arrival in the Senate or on Biden’s desk.

“There’s a lot of value to crafting legislativ­e proposals for a time when the stars do align,” said James Sherk, an economist who coordinate­d labor policy for the White House Domestic Policy Council under Trump and now leads the Center for American Freedom at the America First Policy Institute. Any legislatio­n will be valuable to take “off the shelf for a day when a Republican is in the White House. Rarely does legislatio­n pass in a single Congress,” Sherk said.

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D), whose Northern Virginia district includes thousands of federal workers, counters that such symbolic efforts would damage the appeal of federal service at a time when large swaths of the workforce are eligible to retire and just 7 percent of federal employees are under 30. Attracting new talent should be a bipartisan priority for Congress, he said.

“We don’t have the same handicaps we did under Trump,” Connolly said, referring to the Schedule F effort and another ill-fated plan to blow up the Office of Personnel Management.

But he said House Republican­s “can still score points by making government less attractive, and damage is done when you disparage federal employees just as we’re trying to make federal employment more attractive.”

“Weaponizat­ion of the government is not their target — weaponizat­ion of the government is their purpose.” Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-MD.), on the house Judiciary select subcommitt­ee on the Weaponizat­ion of the federal government

 ?? Jabin Botsford/the Washington Post ?? Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-fla.), Chairman Jim Jordan (R-ohio) and Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) attend a meeting of the Select Subcommitt­ee on the Weaponizat­ion of the Federal Government. The panel is seeking increased oversight of federal civil servants.
Jabin Botsford/the Washington Post Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-fla.), Chairman Jim Jordan (R-ohio) and Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) attend a meeting of the Select Subcommitt­ee on the Weaponizat­ion of the Federal Government. The panel is seeking increased oversight of federal civil servants.

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