Senate looks at trimming pension benefits for government union workers

On Monday night, the Senate actually managed to approve their Defense spending bill for consideration, along with a lengthy list of proposed amendments to it. Some of them had to do with things such as a new vote on an AUMF and the revival of the Base Realignment and Closure program, but one amendment from Senator Ron Johnson (R-Wis) is going to have the government labor unions setting their hair on fire.

Johnson is still looking into the controversial policy of allowing union representatives to dedicate some or even all of their time to union activities while being on the government payroll, using federal facilities and resources and qualifying for all of the benefits which accrue to people actually doing work on behalf of the taxpayers. Known as “official time,” this policy has been a thorn in the side of fiscal conservatives for ages, particularly when you consider that these union workers are eligible for full lifetime retirement benefits along with the actual government workers. This amendment would recalculate how those pension benefits are determined and reduce or eliminate them. A companion amendment would provide for better tracking and oversight of this “official time.” (Government Executive)

The more controversial measure, offered by Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., as an amendment to the Senate’s annual defense authorization bill, would prevent employees from counting years where they worked at least 80 percent on union representational duties toward their retirement pensions. The bill would also prevent such employees from receiving bonuses. It would prohibit employees from engaging in any political activity, including lobbying, while on official time. The phrase “official time” would be replaced by “federal taxpayer-funded union time.”

The second amendment would demand the Office of Personnel Management issue more regular reports on official time usage. OPM is not required by statute to issue such reports, and last released information on official time use in 2014. A similar measure has already been approved in the House and by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which Johnson chairs. Only a House committee has signed off on the pension-cutting bill, and it did so without Democratic support.

Democrats will fight against this passionately because their campaigns are largely funded by the unions, but there’s still reason to be optimistic. Oddly enough, the renaming of the “official time” policy to, “federal taxpayer-funded union time,” might be the most stinging and satisfying element of the amendments. Because that’s precisely what it is. It’s time that the unions spend doing zero work for the taxpayers while being generously rewarded on their dime. If you lack the will to call a thing what it actually is how are you ever going to defeat (or at least reform) it?

It seems that the idea of eliminating official time entirely is too difficult for Congress to handle, so some trimming might be the best first step we can manage. And Johnson isn’t looking to precisely “strip away” the union workers’ retirement plans. The proposal simply alters how retirement benefits are calculated. If the individuals in question want to spend at least 80% of their time doing work on behalf of the taxpayers they can still count those years towards a pension. But if they wish to continue spending all or the majority of their time on union work, perhaps the unions can take all of that dues money and fund the pensions themselves.

The other excellent idea here is to mandate a process where OPM would have to track all of this “official time” and report on it so the information would be available to the public. They stopped doing that in 2014 while Barack Obama was President, but it’s a policy that will cost almost nothing and improve transparency.

Wouldn’t that be a novel idea? Now if we can just muster the votes to get this put through.