Editor’s note: This story was updated to reflect comments from Rep. Rice’s office.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) pledged to help showcase the work of federal employees during a town hall meeting at the Census Bureau. He also suggested that they brag a little about achievements that seem to go unnoticed on Capitol Hill.
The stop Friday in Suitland was the first of several that Cardin intends to have this year at federal facilities throughout Maryland, which is home to approximately 300,000 U.S. government workers.
The senator told Census workers that he wanted to “put a face” on the work that federal employees do for the country.
“You are not faceless, nameless bureaucrats. We’ve got to make the case better than we have in the past,” he said. “We’re going to showcase the work you’ve done for our communities.”
Cardin offered Census employees a brief update of legislation in Congress that could impact their wallets and the agency’s budget. He has signed onto legislation to raise most feds’ salaries by 3.8 percent, rather than the 1.3 percent that President Barack Obama has proposed for 2016. He also has sponsored legislation to ensure federal employees forced to work during a shutdown would be paid.
Employees in the audience voiced concern about a new proposal by Rep. Tom Rice (R- S.C.) to decrease the pay of federal workers making more than $100,000 per year. According to Rice’s office, the legislation is an attempt to attune well-paid federal employees to the struggles that many Americans have gone through during the recent recession.
“If federal government employees’ jobs and pay were directly tied to the economy, like most Americans, they would likely approach decision making differently,” Rice wrote in a newsletter sent to constituents this weekend.
Cardin said, while he was not aware of the bill, he was not surprised that it had been proposed.
“I’ve seen some doozies in the House of Representatives. That bill won’t become law. We won’t let it. It’s ridiculous,” he said. “There are some in Congress — not many — that look at the federal workforce as a target.”
“We’ve drawn the line,” he said. “I’m confident we have a group in the U.S. Senate that will stand up to those types of efforts.”
It was a case, he said, of lawmakers not realizing how much they depended on the work that federal employees do. He relies on Census data to help determine his priorities, draft legislation and write speeches, he said.
In an interview after the event, Census Bureau Director John Thompson characterized it as “exciting” and “enriching for employees.”
It also was helpful for the agency, which is courting lawmakers’ support for a high-tech 2020 census that, among other things, lets people complete the forms online. Thompson estimated that the change could save $5 billion, compared to repeating the 2010 census.
“But to do this, we need to fund the research to carry it off,” he said. “Since we’ve never done this kind of census before, in 2016 and 2017, we need to put a lot of investment into building the systems we need so we can do an end-to-end test in 2018 and be prepared for 2020.”
The agency is asking for $1.5 billion in the fiscal 2016 budget, he said.
The pressure was nearly palpable in the room, as one Census employee in the audience told Cardin, “We are five years away from the next census. There’s no do- over for 15 years if the next one gets messed up.”
Cardin said those lawmakers who hesitate to fund the testing do not understand that the agency is trying to make the 2020 census the most accurate and cost-effective in history. “That message has to go out,” he said.
“I get energy out of listening to your commitment. I’m optimistic that we’re going to get the tools you need to do the work that you do,” he said in closing.