Unionization Threatens Government Watchdog's Credibility

Government Accountability Office (GAO) employees recently voted two to one to join the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFTE) union. This was despite the fact that the GAO recently ranked second in a “Best Place to Work in the Federal Government” survey by the Partnership for Public Service and American University’s Institute for the Study of Public Policy Implementation.

One issue that was never raised during this process was what unionization might do to the GAO’s reputation as Congress’ “non-partisan” watchdog. Little known to the public, the GAO is used by members of Congress for independent, in-depth investigations and analysis on many key issues, ranging from waste in government to the Bush Administration’s effectiveness in handling Hurricane Katrina and Iraq. Many of its reports have been used as the basis for high-profile congressional hearings.

Established in 1921, the GAO was known until 2004 as the General Accounting Office. The name change reflects its evolution from an agency that started out number-crunching and checking the government’s books to one that does much deeper investigations and evaluations of government programs that may affect policy decisions. It was even recently selected by the House Administration Committee to investigate the election in Florida’s 13th Congressional District regarding 18,000 blank votes cast by voters using Sarasota County’s electronic voting machines.

As American Enterprise Institute congressional scholar Norman Ornstein—who is no fan of the GOP-controlled Congress—pointed out in 2005, the GAO and other congressional support agencies “would soon lose their reputations for integrity, their first-rate staffs, and ultimately their purpose” if they were to “become identified as partisan or ideological instruments.”

That concern seemed to be absent when a House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee held hearings on the GAO and its employee-management problems earlier this year. Setting the tone for the hearing was IFTE President Gregory J. Junemann, whose union already represents the less-prestigious Congressional Research Service (CRS), which does research for members of Congress and their staffs. At the hearing, Junemann quoted extensively from research by the unionized CRS to attack GAO’s management, raising serious questions about the objectivity of CRS. Junemann said that CRS had shown that GAO Comptroller General Dave Walker had “contradicted promises” it made to GAO employees on pay adjustments.

The IFTE union’s secretary-treasurer, Paul Shearon, admitted to USA Today that the Democratic takeover of Congress helped fuel the union’s drive to take over the GAO. Supporting the effort in a letter to Walker were House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D.-Md.), House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller (D.-Calif.), Sen. Teddy Kennedy (D.-Mass.) and Sen. Hillary Clinton (D.-N.Y.). Also signing the letter were 19 other Democratic members of Congress, joined by three Republicans:
Representatives Frank LoBiondo (N.J.), Charlie Dent (Pa.) and Chris Smith (N.J.).
So just what sort of union has the “independent” and “non-partisan” GAO tied itself to?
The IFTE is a long-time critic of proposals to reform the federal government’s pay structure or employment policies. Benjamin T. Toyama, the IFTE’s Western Federal Area Vice President, did not hold back when testifying on the Bush Administration’s proposals to reform Department of Defense employment known as the National Security Personnel System (NSPS) before a House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee (even when the Republicans ran the House in 2006).

He dumped liberal vitriol on the proposed reforms, denouncing them as “created by the likes of former Heritage Foundation employees who have little to no experience working for or within the Department of Defense. These are political appointees who have been recruited and hired by the government, most notably, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), for the sole purpose of bringing their wrecking ball from conservative think tanks in Washington to the civil service. How can this be good for national security or fair to the workers?”

The IFTE also can be counted on to support Democrats with its political contributions at least 70% of the time, according to the non-partisan Besides endorsing John Kerry for President over George Bush, the IFTE contributed nearly $60,000 from 2002-06 to 62 Democrat congressional candidates compared to $30,000 to only 28 Republican candidates for Congress.