Senator Seeks Ban on Taxpayer Support for VA, IRS Unions
Finally, someone in Washington is taking issue with the unconscionable practice of paying public employees to do union work.
On Wednesday, Finance Committee Ranking Member Orrin Hatch, of Utah, gave an impassioned speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate regarding public employees at the Departments of Veterans Affairs and the Internal Revenue Service who are paid by taxpayers to perform union duties, according to a Senate finance committee press release.
“I, for one, don’t believe that taxpayers ought to be footing the bill for union work. I think that the majority of the American people, if given an opportunity to fully understand this practice and the abuse it entails, would agree with me,” Hatch said.
“I don’t think it’s unreasonable to argue that most Americans would be outraged to learn that the federal government pays tens of millions of dollars every year to pay hundreds – if not thousands – of government employees not to work,” he said.
Hatch explained that union release time, or “official time” – the practice of giving some employees full or part time off to conduct union work at taxpayers’ expense – is the modern-day itineration of what used to be called “featherbedding.”
The U.S. railroad industry, which used feathered beds in sleeping cars, first allowed release time at the urging of railway labor unions as a way to generate a full day’s work for an employee who would not otherwise be employed.
“Featherbedding” was outlawed by Congress in 1947, though the Supreme Court narrowly defined the terminology, giving birth to what has now grown into a colossal union subsidy scheme.
“The featherbedding-like practice I’m referring to today is most often called ‘official time,’ wherein government employees – who are highly compensated, often including overtime pay – are paid to perform no work for the government, only work for the benefit of their unions,” Hatch said.
“These ‘employees’ are not union members, nor are they paid by the union. Instead, they are union members paid by the taxpayers to work full-time for the union.”
“Of course, this practice also goes on in the private sector. However, in the private sector, the featherbedding comes off of the bottom line and is negotiated as a measure of ensuring labor peace, and in exchange for other union concessions.
“In the federal government, where the bottom line is the taxpayer, and where unions are not permitted to strike, this practice is a way for weak managers to use government funds to reward public sector union political supporters and financial contributors, passing the costs along to the unknowing taxpayer for services not rendered.
“In the private sector, official time is carefully monitored and controlled.
“In the federal sector, managers generally look the other way.”
The recent scandals at with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Internal Revenue Service are intricately linked to the union featherbedding issue, Hatch said, and it’s costing taxpayers millions every year.
“ … I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the VA – which is plagued by incompetence, dishonesty and bureaucratic ineptitude – utilizes this practice of official time more than any other federal agency, according to (the Office of Personnel Management).
“In 2011, the VA reported paying out nearly a million hours in official time, an increase of more than 23 percent over the previous year.
“The cost of official time in 2011 amounted to nearly $43 million.”
Hatch also noted that lawmakers have questioned the practice of union release time at the VA in the past, and explained how he believes it’s contributing to the agency’s current problems.
“Senators Portman and Coburn sent a letter to former VA Secretary Shinseki in 2013, noting that the vast majority of VA employees on official time were trained nurses, instrument technicians, pharmacists, dental assistants, or therapists. In other words, these were employees hired specifically to fulfill roles in direct support of veterans. Yet, instead of caring for veterans, processing claims, and helping to eliminate the horrendous backlog, these employees were being paid to do union work full time.
“On top of that, union-negotiated work rules over things like seniority and job classification have contributed to the bureaucratic nightmare at the VA.”
And then there’s the IRS.
“By its own admission, the agency was targeting tea party groups in the run-up to the elections in both 2010 and 2012. And, like the VA, the IRS consists of a heavily unionized workforce,” Hatch said.
“It shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn the (National Treasury Employees Union that represents about 66 percent of IRS employees) is extremely active in politics, having twice endorsed President Obama.
“During the 2010 election cycle, when the IRS first began targeting conservative groups, the NTEU raised over $600,000 through its PAC, almost all of which went to Democrats.
“In the next election, in 2012, the NTEU PAC raised more than $700,000, 94 percent of which went to Democrats.
“In other words, … during the same campaign cycles in which the IRS was targeting conservative organizations – organizations that were critical of the President, his administration, and, in many cases, the IRS itself – for harassment and extra scrutiny, the union that represents two-thirds of IRS employees was busy raising and donating well over a million dollars to Democratic candidates,” Hatch said.
During that same time, in 2011, at least 200 IRS employees logged 625,000 hours of official time at a cost to taxpayers of $27 million, Hatch said.
The point, he said, is that the federal government prohibits certain employees from joining a union – including those in the FBI, CIA, Secret Service, the Government Accountability Office, and Federal Labor Relations Authority – for a variety of good reasons, and lawmakers would be wise to do the same with the VA and IRS.
“In the days to come, Congress is going to have to take a hard look at reforming both the Veterans Administration and the IRS. One of the questions we’re going to have to ask ourselves is whether these agencies – with their important and sensitive missions and their poor performance in the recent past – should be added to the list of agencies not permitted to unionize,” Hatch said.
“In addition, as we continually look for ways to improve the efficiency of our government, we will need to examine the overall practice of official time and determine whether it should be eliminated entirely.”
“One thing is for sure … If what we’ve seen at the VA and the IRS is in any way representative of the influence unions have on government agencies, drastic changes are going to be necessary.”