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Posted at 9:00 AM ET, 12/21/2010

Virginia Rep. Gerry Connolly on government workers under political fire

By Ed O'Keefe

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.


Gerry Connolly

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.)

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."

Read the full story and leave your thoughts in the comments section below

By Ed O'Keefe  | December 21, 2010; 9:00 AM ET
Categories:  Congress, From The Pages of The Post, Workplace Issues  
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Comments

You said it Rep. Connolly "If the other side of the aisle is willing to engage in meaningful reforms. . ." The unions are adamant about not accepting anything that will change the status quo. The federal government is a big and bloated bureaucracy that no one has the guts, including you, to reform since it is not politically expedient for your Washington career. We are not demonizing the federal employee nor are we disparaging public service - we want to see reforms that result in a leaner, more efficient government; as such, contributing to "the national cause of reducing the red ink."

Posted by: delrosario | December 21, 2010 12:25 PM | Report abuse

Connolly admits that the Empire has become so centralized that the people in the actual states don't know any bureaucrats. Isn't that a problem?

Stop driving up the cost of living around DC and relocate offices to flyover country.

Posted by: getjiggly1 | December 21, 2010 1:13 PM | Report abuse

Its pretty interesting on one level to hear and read about all this rancor against public workers. What most everyone doesn't realize is that 100% of what public workers do is based on an underlying statute enacted by a Congress, signed by a President, and perhaps interpreted by the Courts. They don't wake up one morning and decide to do harm, which is defined as something you don't like, but are told what to do by law. Many of these statutes were enacted because of abuses of power by private and public entities, so when railing against what public workers do, one should revisit the reasons they are there and see if anything has changed. Another thing: you could wander through the cubes of any Fortune 500 company, you name it, and you will find people loafing in some manner, at pretty much the same rate as a government office. Thanks and have a Merry Christmas.

Posted by: greetingsfromCA | December 21, 2010 2:00 PM | Report abuse

These posts are at least more civil. I find it strange that while Fed bashing is carried out at all levels I recently saw an article that congressional staffers got a 9% raise for the past two years. As a Federal Employee for 27 years I have never seen a raise greater than 4%. That was years ago. Our raises have continued to drop right to the freeze. The public does not realize that employees are required to have a government travel card for trips. The branch I work for requires the accounts come back to the individual employee as cardholder. We systematically have problems getting our travel vouchers timely reimbursed by the government. The end result is the government says we the individual are responsible for the payments. If they hold us up by not timely reimbursing our travel vouchers, they expect us to come up with the money to pay the bill out of our personal funds. If you do not, you can find a nasty surprise in your credit report, which will not be removed upon request. I know of one voucher for a detail to Mexico to work with Mexican officials for $14,000. This voucher is still outstanding and who among the rank and file can afford $14,000 out of their personal funds. The private sector does not face this.

Also, bias in selections for promotions has returned more strongly to government. The favored criteria now is young, white males. If you are older and a white female you will find yourself passed over for promotions for which you are highly qualified. Don't assume federal employees have an even playing field not found in private industry or that outstanding employment evaluations carry much weight in the selections.

Federal Employees are not always happy or in total agreement with how we are required to do our jobs, but we do them. The problems in government that need redress are many, but taking it out on the rank and file serves no real purpose. Public service functions will slow to a crawl and many people will suffer from both a lack of services or unbearable delays in their benefits and government service affecting licenses, permits, etc. You can say who cares, but what if it is you, i.e. your unemployment stops coming on time, your social security checks are no longer on time and processing time is doubled for most government functions. Congress writes the law under which we government employees must function and demonizing us does not change Congressional mandates.

I pray for an improving American economy, jobs for those out of work, and restoring the health of America. We need to pay more attention to the health of America first if we are to continue to be world police and money providers to other countries. If America Financial Health drops, all our benefits to other countries will ultimately fail and foreign military aid will fall. Meanwhile Americans would have to accept a much lower style of living.

Posted by: Fedup64 | December 22, 2010 9:50 AM | Report abuse

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