The Republican chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee said he’ll support a pay raise for federal employees, but he expeced something in return: their help in getting rid of coworkers who act wrongly.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) delivered that message Wednesday to more than 300 federal employees attending the National Treasury Employees Union legislative conference in Washington.
“I need this union’s help to figure out a way to root out the bad apples,” he said. “When you have somebody within your organization who isn’t playing by the rules, who may be breaking policy or breaking the law, you can’t put him on paid administrative leave for the next year and not have a consequence. You can’t retire and think that’s behind you.”
His committee is crafting legislation now that will focus on the Senior Executive Service, Chaffetz told reporters prior to his speech. There should be a swifter process for firing senior executives accused of wrongdoing. If they retire instead, they should still be subject to federal investigations by inspectors general, he said. President Barack Obama last year signed a law making it easier for the Veterans Affairs Department to fire SES members with little notice. Several high-ranking officials retired rather than face termination. The oversight committee also will continue a controversial investigation of the Internal Revenue Service’s tax-exempt group, Chaffetz said. That unit’s former executive, Lois Lerner, retired in 2013 before a review board could propose that she be fired. She refused to testify to the committee, angering Republicans.
“Until that investigation is done and is complete, we will not let go of it,” Chaffetz said. “But I will do everything I can to properly highlight the good work that the overwhelming majority of the IRS does. I hope you can see I’m trying to find balance and bring balance back to where it hasn’t been before.”
Chaffetz was the first Republican chairman of the oversight panel to address the NTEU crowd since 2003. His predecessor, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), had never come. Issa’s tenure on the committee had been marked by partisanship in hearings and investigations.
So in many ways, it seemed like Chaffetz was walking into a lion’s den. Many of the union members in attendance came from the IRS, the subject of much of Issa’s wrath. Others were employees of Customs and Border Patrol, part of the Homeland Security Department, and worried about a budget crisis if Congress fails to pass a spending bill before the current one expires at the end of the month.
Chaffetz sought to reassure his audience that he would listen to them.
“This person right here can come see me anytime,” Chaffetz said, gesturing to NTEU’s national president Colleen Kelley. “I want all of us to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.”
In response to a question from a customs agent, however, Chaffetz would not say whether he would support full funding of the Homeland Security Department before the continuing resolution expires. First, Republicans must provide an answer to the President’s executive actions on immigration, he said.
Chaffetz said he supports a pay raise for federal employees although he does not know how big it should be. The President has proposed a 1.3- percent raise. Congressional Democrats have suggested 3.8 percent in new legislation.
The amount of the raise should be decided within the context of the entire federal budget, Chaffetz said, adding that he did not think all federal employees should be treated equally.
“I still believe we have probably too many federal employees. There are some people that may need to be paid more and some who may need to be paid less, and there are some agencies and departments that I’d actually like to get rid of. It has to balance itself out,” he said, adding that IT workers should draw bigger salaries to encourage them to stay in the government.
He did not name the organizations that he would cut.
Democrat warns of harsher measures to come
Chaffetz was followed on the podium by Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the oversight panel, who painted a starkly different picture. While Chaffetz received polite attention from the NTEU audience, Cummings got an enthusiastic standing ovation as he walked on the stage.
“It seems like you are at war,” he told the crowd, listing the recent pay freezes, sequestration and the government shutdown. The next chapter could be worse, he said.
“Unfortunately, I believe that we’ll 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,” he said. “I fear that much of that kind of legislation will move through the oversight committee.”
He predicted the committee would see legislation that would expand the VA’s new authority to quickly fire senior executives to the rest of government, including rank-and-file employees. Already, some lawmakers have introduced bills to cut government funding across the board and reduce the workforce by attrition. The committee has not acted upon any of them, however.