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EDITORIAL: Washington too big to manage on 'official time'

By: The Gazette editorial
February 11, 2014 Updated: February 11, 2014 at 11:52 am
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How long would a company survive if hundreds of its employees were getting regular paychecks but weren't actually performing work for the business? In the private sector, such a company would be out of business, probably sooner than later. But things are different in the federal government, where hundreds of highly paid employees receive generous pay and benefits while doing nothing for the taxpayers who fund their compensation. The reason this is happening is the legal practice known as "official time."

As Washington Examiner senior investigative reporter Mark Flatten detailed in his recent four-part series, "Too Big to Manage," official time has been around since 1978, when it was first established by President Carter's Civil Service Reform Act. Under official time, federal departments and agencies are required to allow a certain number of career civil servants to draw full pay and benefits while performing work on behalf of a federal employee union. The practice cost taxpayers $156 million in 2011, the last year for which data was available, according to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. The OPM manages the federal civil service.

But that figure likely seriously underestimates the true cost of official time to taxpayers because, as Flatten reported, the Department of Defense and the Department of Justice, among others, refused in response to Examiner Freedom of Information Act requests to disclose how many of their workers are covered by the policy. So, since OPM doesn't include such data in its report, it is impossible for taxpayers to know precisely how much they are contributing to federal employee unions every year via official time.

The OPM report also doesn't provide information on what employees do with their time while working for their unions. So, beginning in November 2012, Flatten submitted FOIAs seeking that information from 17 departments and agencies responsible, according to the personnel agency, for 94 percent of the 3.4 million hours of official time used annually. After literally months of cajoling, unfulfilled promises, missed deadlines and dealing with incomplete or illegible data, Flatten was able to compile these results:

The Examiner identified more than 700 federal employees who spent at least half of their time working for unions rather than performing their government jobs in 2012. That figure includes 558 who spent more than 1,500 hours annually on official time, which means they did little, if any, work for their agencies, and 150 who spent at least 1,000 hours annually on union release. Another 232 federal employees spent at least 500 hours - about a fourth of the year - doing union duties instead of government work.

Among the activities allowed by official time is lobbying Congress. It could not be determined how many hours were used for this purpose, but union officials made clear they can and do lobby for bigger agency budgets and staffs and against measures to limit or eliminate official time. So taxpayers fund lobbying efforts to increase their tax burden.

Abolish official time. - The Washington Examiner

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