May 7, 1997 | Commentary on Jobs, Jobs and Labor Policy

ED050797: Using Taxpayer Dollars for Union Lobbying 

Government employees have long been the butt of jokes by late-night comedians because of their alleged inefficiency in the workplace. What may make you laugh even harder -- or cry -- is that some of these bureaucrats are actually paid not to do their government work.

Hard to believe? It's true. Under a practice called "official time," federal employees are encouraged to take paid time off to do a host of tasks on behalf of their labor unions. In other words, you are paying for union work, whether you agree with the goals of that work or not.

What's even more amazing is that the Clinton administration has championed the use of official time to "promote cooperation" with federal employee unions as part of Vice President Gore's efforts to "reinvent government." These efforts were supposed to make government leaner and more efficient. Instead, Vice President Gore's initiative violates the taxpayers' trust by encouraging inefficiency in the federal workplace.

In fact, a January 31 ruling by the Federal Labor Relations Authority, which is dominated by Clinton administration appointees, will enable union representatives who also work for the federal government to use official time to lobby Congress.

Yes! Taxpayers would thus be forced not only to pay the salaries of bureaucrats who do little or no government work but also to help subsidize lobbying by federal unions who pressure Congress for bigger budgets and larger bureaucracies. Since lobbying campaigns typically are very time consuming and open ended, this new use of "official time" will allow unions to create a permanent political machine in Washington -- all with your tax dollars.

As federal employees have been encouraged to take time off for union purposes, hundreds of new lawsuits and grievances have been filed -- at taxpayer expense -- alleging discrimination in the workplace or poor working conditions. Whether these lawsuits are frivolous or not, they cost taxpayers millions of dollars each year in lost work hours and lawyers' fees.

Last June an audit by the government's accounting arm, the General Accounting Office (GAO), revealed that the total financial losses caused by workers doing union work at just one agency -- the Social Security Administration (SSA) had doubled from an estimated $6 million in 1993 to $12.6 million in 1995.

That $12.6 million, taken directly from the Social Security Trust Fund, could have covered annual Social Security benefits for more than 1,400 senior citizens. Instead, this money went to fund the activities of federal employee unions. To add insult to injury, SSA field managers told GAO that generous "official time" allowances made it difficult to maintain adequate staffing levels to answer phones and handle routine office work.

There's no way of telling how many taxpayer dollars meant for education, crime fighting or health care are being diverted to lobbying or other activities by federal employee labor unions, since federal agencies aren't required to compile or report the number of hours spent on "official time." But if the remainder of the federal workforce uses "official time" at the same rate and pay scale as do union representatives in the SSA, the direct cost to taxpayers could be as high as $315 million per year.

"Official time" is nothing more than a taxpayer subsidy to federal employee labor unions. And because unions are able to take care of much of their business at taxpayers' expense, huge amounts of money the unions raised themselves is freed up for political contributions and other purposes. Naturally, these contributions go to lawmakers who favor bigger government.

Thus, the six largest federal employee labor unions donated more than $700,000 in "soft" money to the Democratic Party in the last election cycle, more than 350 times what they gave to Republicans. And this was in addition to the $35 million that organized labor spent on a television ad campaign to support Democrats during the 1996 election.

To address the situation, Rep. Dan Miller, R-Fla., has introduced the Workplace Integrity Act, which would require bureaucrats to spend at least 50 percent of their work week on government business. This would end the practice of what amounts to paying full-time union representatives with tax dollars. The bill also would prevent officials from taking "official time" without the approval of supervisors and require federal agencies to compile information on the costs of "official time."

Allowing bureaucrats to lobby Congress for bigger budgets instead of doing their jobs has made "official time" a bad joke. As Congress works to balance the budget, it should take a hard look at stopping this abuse of taxpayers' faith and dollars.

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Note: Kenneth R. Weinstein is director of the Government Reform Project and August Stofferahn is a research assistant at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.