Ask almost anyone in Washington to name the best public policy analysis shop in town, and a common response would be the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Created in 1921, this agency, known until July 2004 as the General Accounting Office, performs hundreds of program audits each year for Congress, often at the behest of one or more of its members. These studies are widely trusted for their timeliness, depth and accuracy. A major reason for the high quality is the agency’s lack of an ideological axe to grind. The GAO’s nonpartisan status gives its analysts maximum leeway to investigate and evaluate federal activity of all kinds, without fear of political reprisals. But that freedom could be jeopardized in the wake of the recent vote to form a union by analysts at agency headquarters and 11 field offices.
On Thursday evening, September 20, the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE) reported that a slightly better than 2-to-1 majority of GAO employees had mailed in ballots favoring union representation. “We’re ecstatic!,” said IFPTE Senior Analyst and vote-count observer Jacqueline Harpp of the 897-445 vote. “Our slogan for this campaign was ‘band together’ and that’s exactly what we did. Over the past 18 months we came together regardless of pay band, years of service, and whether we worked in D.C. or the field. This vote reflects that spirit of unity.” Another union observer, Lise Levie, added: “We’re looking forward to a great working relationship with Comptroller David Walker. The union will help us to make GAO a true model agency.”
That raises the question: Why would policy wonks at the Government Accountability Office have a need for a union? Only recently, the Partnership for Public Service and American University’s Institute for the Study of Public Policy Implementation ranked the GAO second in a survey of “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government.” What apparently triggered the move was a series of changes that GAO management made in its personnel policy around two years ago. Among cost-cutting steps, the agency assigned analysts into salary “bands,” eliminated cost-of-living increases for certain employees, and reduced salaries of “over-market” employees. In the spring of 2006, a group of analysts, feeling slighted, approached the 63,000-member Silver Spring-based IFPTE for help in forming a union. The union, an AFL-CIO affiliate, is no stranger to the federal work force. For more than 20 years, it’s represented the GAO’s sister agency, the Congressional Research Service (CRS). Additionally, it represents federal judges, NASA scientists, and other professional employees.
There would seem little wrong with the decision to unionize – at least on the surface. But in fact, the GAO’s longstanding nonpartisan role could be chipped away over time. IFPTE is anything but a nonpartisan organization. Writing under the pseudonym “Taft Hartley,” a critic of the election recently cautioned in the conservative weekly, Human Events, that research objectivity could be compromised, with the American public paying a high price in the long run. The author recalled a hearing held earlier this year by a House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee in which IFPTE President Gregory J. Junemann quoted extensively from CRS research sharply criticizing GAO management. The research, said Junemann, alleged that GAO Comptroller David Walker “contradicted promises” about pay adjustments. In other words, a unionized Congressional agency effectively was giving bad publicity to another, nonunion Congressional agency. Paul Shearon, union secretary-treasurer, admitted to USA Today that the Democratic takeover of Congress was a boon to his union’s organizing drive at the GAO, a fact not lost on key Democrats. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.), House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller (Calif.), Sen. Ted Kennedy (Mass.) and Sen. Hillary Clinton (N.Y.), plus 22 other lawmakers – 19 Democrats and three Republicans – signed a letter to Walker, indicating their support for the IFPTE campaign. About 70 percent of the union’s contributions go to Democrats, according to the nonpartisan watchdog group, Opensecrets.org. The union also endorsed John Kerry for President in 2004.
All this could affect future Government Accountability Office audits calling for reforms in the federal bureaucracy. The union is a longtime critic of proposals to reform the federal work force pay structure and other employment policies. Benjamin T. Toyama, the union’s Western Federal Area Vice President, made his view clear in testimony against the Bush administration’s proposals to reform the Defense Department’s National Security Personnel System. He denounced the proposals as “created by the likes of former Heritage Foundation employees who have little to no experience working for or within the Department of Defense.” That doesn’t sound like the sort of person a GAO auditor on the case would want to cross the wrong way.
With the union election now decided, the GAO employees’ next move will be to elect a council, write a constitution, determine bargaining priorities, and negotiate a contract. Junemann says his union’s involvement will be minimal because the employees know what they want. “The analysts at GAO are experts at creating efficient organizations,” he said. “You can bet that their bargaining surveys and their research will be data driven. This local union will be an example for other labor groups.” One hopes in the meantime that the Government Accountability Office will continue to live up to its middle name. (IFPTE, 9/20/07; Human Events, 10/22/07).