Congress can't be trusted to do right by feds

Thursday - 5/22/2014, 4:10am EDT

Jacqueline Simon, Public Policy Department Director, AFGE, discusses the issue of trust on In Depth with Francis Rose.

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Commentary by J. David Cox Sr.
National President, American Federation of Government Employees

This column is part of Federal News Radio's special report, Trust Redefined: Reconnecting Government and Its Employees.

Federal employees take an oath to uphold and defend the U.S. Constitution, and they carry out that mission with honor and duty every single day. Yet they are being impeded by a corrosive political environment that denigrates them and their vital role in serving the public.

When Congress enacts laws that deny federal employees an annual pay raise and force new workers to contribute more of their salary to a fully-funded pension system, that trust is eroded.

(Courtesy of AFGE)

When politicians freeze federal employee hiring yet allow agencies to hire contractors who charge taxpayers two or three times as much as federal employees cost, that trust is eroded.

When a singular goal of slashing federal deficits undermines agency missions and makes it impossible for employees to do their jobs, that trust is eroded.

The corrosive impact of austerity budgets and anti-government sentiment on the federal workforce cannot be overstated.

Financially, the impact on these working class men and women has been astronomical. Federal employees have suffered $138 billion in lost wages due to a three-year pay freeze, higher retirement contributions for new workers, and smaller pay adjustments than required under law. That doesn't even take into account the loss of up to six days in wages last summer due to employee furloughs required under sequestration.

Slashing agency budgets under a misguided notion that we can cut our way out of our economic hardships also has proved devastating to the American public. Wait times at VA hospitals and Social Security offices are increasing, depriving citizens of vital services. Federal prisons are overcrowded, endangering the lives of correctional officers and inmates. Cities and counties are receiving less federal funding for clean drinking water and sewer projects, compromising the public's health.

Agency leaders will put a positive spin on the budget cuts, saying agencies are doing more with less. But our frontline employees and many of their managers know the reality: getting less means doing less.

When the government proposes speeding up the poultry processing lines so much that chickens go by in a blur, the USDA saves money but federal inspectors no longer can ensure the safety of food that's whizzing by them.

When a veteran diagnosed with PTSD has to wait months for a follow-up appointment, the VA saves money but doctors aren't able to provide veterans with the care they deserve.

When the military delays maintenance on weapons systems and equipment, DoD saves money but civilian employees can't do their job to make sure troops are safe and well-equipped for battle.

The sad truth is, these so-called budget cuts actually end up costing taxpayers more. On paper, restricting agencies from hiring federal employees would seem to save a substantial amount of money. However, since the work doesn't go away, agencies are forced to contract out the work to private-sector corporations, who charge two or three times more than it costs to hire civilian employees.

By the same token, last year's 16-day government shutdown actually cost taxpayers at least $24 billion in lost productivity — money that could have been used to treat more veterans, keep Social Security offices open longer, or provide training to unemployed workers.

When one political party would rather shut down the government than expand health insurance coverage to millions of uninsured Americans, it's clear we can no longer trust our politicians to do the right thing for the country.

Despite the challenges they face, federal employees come to work every day and strive to do their best, because they are dedicated to their jobs and the mission of their organization. One day I hope that the laws and policies they enforce treat them with the respect and trust that they have earned.


J. David Cox Sr. is national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents more than 670,000 federal and D.C. government employees.