NTEU looks for allies among freshmen members of Congress

Now that the final votes have been counted in the 2014 midterm elections, Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said she's hoping ...

By Jory Heckman
Federal News Radio

Regardless of whether Republicans or Democrats take control of Congress, federal employees either gain or lose legislative supporters of government workers every two years. Now that the Republican party will take control of the Senate and the House of Representatives with the largest majority in decades, Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said she’s hoping to find new allies amongst the freshman class of senators and representatives.

“NTEU will do what we always do, which is reach out to each and every one of those newly elected and do everything we can, nationally and locally, so that those who are making decisions about federal employees actually know what federal employees do and how critical their work is to our country,” Kelley said on Federal Drive with Tom Temin. “We take nothing for granted, nothing about labels or party affiliation. We do this one-by-one,” she said.

In Virginia’s 10th district, Rep.-elect Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) will replace Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), a longtime champion of government workers who retired after 17 terms. In the 8th district, Rep.-elect Donald Beyer Jr. (D-Va.) will take over for retiring Rep. James Moran (D-Va.), another member of Congress with a record of supporting the federal workforce. Kelley said she hopes these newcomers approach government workers with the same perspective and their predecessors.

“Traditionally, members of Congress from the greater Washington area have been very strong supporters of the federal workforce,” Kelley said. “They really do know what federal employees do, and they value and respect that work. And we have a good relationship with all of them. My hope and expectation is that we will have those same relationships with Congressman Beyer and Congresswoman Comstock.”

One remaining ally in the midterm shakeup is Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who recently introduced a bill that would give preferential points to federal contractors based on their prior labor practices.

“Eleanor Holmes Norton has been a very outspoken and very knowledgeable representative of federal employees. She is at the forefront all the time, recognizing the work that they do and fighting to ensure that they are treated fairly. So her voice, along with those especially here in this area really do tend to understand,” Kelley said. “Maybe it’s because they know that they have federal employees and they know their faces, and they know their faces, and they know their jobs and they know their agencies.”

Though NTEU may have a strong core of supporters near Washington, more than 85 percent of federal employees live and work outside of the Beltway, according to Kelley. She said she wants freshmen members of Congress to realize those constituents when they make their first votes in the new year.

“So many who were elected the other night and will serve for the next two years will be representing some federal employees, and will be accountable for whether or not their agencies are able to deliver the services that the American public is depending on them to do,” she said.

One thing for NTEU to address in 2015, Kelley said, is federal pay, which has been frozen during sequestration.

“One of the things that we will continue to push for is a fair and appropriate pay raise. Federal employees are losing ground and have lost significant ground over the last four years when you look at pay comparability with the private sector. And we want to get federal pay back on track,” Kelley said. “We know that will be a challenge, especially with these budget times and with the CR [continuing resolution] that we’re currently under, of course, and not knowing what FY 2016 will bring once they start working on that budget, but federal employees have sacrificed more than any other group to the budget deficit and they shouldn’t have to be asked to sacrifice any more.”

NTEU will also make increasing agency budgets a priority for 2015, Kelley said.

“Most federal agencies have not had the funding that they need for the past couple of years. They’ve seen their workforces decrease, but the work that the country needs them to do has either stayed the same or increased. Those funding levels for agencies have to be addressed or the services that the American public receives are going to start decreasing, and that is nothing that the country wants,” Kelley said.

Part of the problem, Kelley said, has been a culture in which government workers only get negative attention from members of Congress and the media, but rarely get praised for their success.

“Federal employees do so much of their work sort of under the radar — they don’t talk about it, you don’t read about it. When things are going well, you don’t hear anything about all the outstanding work that federal employees and federal agencies are doing. It’s only when something either goes wrong or allegedly goes wrong, of course, that you read about it.

Kelley said Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) budget, which passed in the House this year, would be a step backward in funding agencies.

“It also has serious attacks on federal employees and their retirement system,” she said. “We’re going to be working hard to make sure that that doesn’t move in this next session of Congress. ”

Also on the table is whether talks over the omnibus bill, which were resumed by Sen. Barbar Mikulski (D-Md.) and Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), will lead to passage, or if another continuing resolution will take effect. Kelley said the government has been operating under stopgap measures for too long.

“Federal employees and federal agencies have been under this unknown scenario of funding for just too long, The idea that they would do another CR and then another CR, we realize that can happen, but that makes it very hard for agencies to plan on how they are going to plan on how they are going to deliver for the rest of the fiscal year,” Kelley said. “Whatever happens, they need to focus on giving these agencies the money that they need. The sooner they know what they will have to operate with for the whole year, the better — not just for the agencies, but for the country.”

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