Virginia Rep. Gerry Connolly on government workers under political fire
More and more, when politicians talk about government employees -- whether they are federal, state or local -- it is with the kind of umbrage ordinarily aimed at Wall Street financiers and convenience store bandits.
The Federal Eye and colleague Karen Tumulty write in Tuesday's Washington Post about the growing backlash against public sector employees -- an issue of special interest in the Washington area, which is home to about 600,000 federal workers.
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) represents about 56,000 of them who live in Northern Virginia. The Federal Eye spoke with him last week about the growing public sector backlash. A transcript -- edited for space -- appears below:
Question: What do you make of this increased rhetoric against public sector workers, specifically, federal employees?
"I think it's very easy for politicians to demonize federal employees. Politically, it costs very little to do that. But I think in terms of what it does in the cost to public service is considerable. Ultimately, the loser is the public itself, because the more you make public service unattractive, the more you reinforce stereotypes.
"These aren't just nameless, faceless people who work in the bowels of a bureaucracy, they are real people who provide real services for real people. It just demeans public service in a way that ultimately costs the public."
Does this feel like something new or more intense than he has seen before? Is it new?
"I think we've been doing this since the age of Ronald Reagan, maybe even Jimmy Carter. I'm a child of the 1960s, I remember John Kennedy and he ennobled public service. Starting around Jimmy Carter and certainly perfected by Ronald Reagan, we had a very different message about public service. I think we've been fighting that battle back and forth ever since."
What about President Obama: Is he closer to Reagan or Kennedy when it comes to public service and federal workers?
"I think he's in between. Personally, he certainly believes in the nobility of service and would believe it's a calling that's worthy. But on the other hand, as a politician, I think he too quickly singled out federal employment as, 'That's the one I'm going to pluck out and put on the scoreboard. That's where we're going to save money.'
"My reaction was, I believe federal employees and certainly the unions who represent them are willing to make a sacrifice and put some commitments on the table as part of this national cause of reducing red ink. But help me understand why of all the items on the menu being served up by the Deficit Reduction Committee, the White House in advance picks this one and says this is what we're going to do. And this one just happens to be aimed and about federal employment.
Then what should he have picked otherwise?
"I think the president unwittingly contributed to this unfriendly, if not hostile climate with respect to federal employment, and I think that's too bad. That's not the same as saying that they shouldn't be willing to make a sacrifice, but signaling it out in advance of the commission's report I think calls out the value we put on that service. To me, that's an unfortunate message that just piles on."
So where is this anti-public sector debate headed?
"I think the Congress we elected in November is a lot less hospitable to the interests of federal employees. I think you're going to see a lot more legislative action and suggestion aimed at reducing the size and compensation of that federal workforce and retirees.
"Going right at the benefits, going right at the size of the workforce, and frankly, being a lot less attuned to the quality of that workforce. Facts be damned: There's a lot of rhetoric on the other side about the growth of the federal workforce, but it's about the size it was under the first President Bush. There hasn't really been a lot of net growth in the federal workforce when you compare it to say, 1990. It's not like it's gotten out of hand, it's true. I'm afraid that in the focus of reinforcing a stereotype is what will be lost in discussions are the ones we ought to be having, which are the quality of the workforce.
"Where are we going to get the sophisticated skillsets we need for the future if we're demeaning that service in the first place? I think it's self-defeating. It's a compelling issue, because an awful lot of people are qualified to retire."
What if anything are you going to do combat this?
"If the other side of the aisle is willing to engage in meaningful reforms, where we can have win-win, and we're able to get more out of the federal workforce, I'm all for that. The president just signed my bill on telework last week. There are a lot of other initiatives that can upgrade how we do things in the federal workplace and how we recruit and retain skilled workers.
What is really driving this debate?
"What's the political cost back in Utah or Idaho or Wyoming? What's the cost of picking on the federal bureaucrat? It kind of feeds the narrative of this big, out or control federal bureaucracy that is so far removed from where you live and work that it's an unnecessary impediment to the rest of us getting on with our lives.
"It's a powerful narrative in the sense I suppose of the American story, this fierce independence of Americans who, by nature are a little mistrustful of government. That's healthy. But to despise the public servant and demonize that public servant, with impunity, does a real disservice to public service and is dangerous in terms of the quality of the government we're going to need as we move forward."
"The next Congress almost guarantees that they'll be a lot more attackers than defenders. People like me are going to have a much harder job to make the case, because I think there are fewer willing ears."
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| December 21, 2010; 9:00 AM ET
Categories: Congress, From The Pages of The Post, Workplace Issues
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