Labor Day always has a special meaning for my family and me. As a child, my father’s union card was our passport to a better life.
Our experience reflects that of America’s working families everywhere – and, especially, the families of Americans of Color. For nearly a century now, the civil rights movement and the union movement have worked, hand in hand, to lift up our lives.
This is why it is in everyone’s interest to support the right of federal, state and local employees to organize and fight for the dignity, safety and compensation they deserve.
These public servants work for all of us. They deserve our support and respect.
Yet, as America celebrates Labor Day 2011, government employees are under attack. In my view, these attacks are both unfair and unwise.
Consider the 263,000 federal workers and their families who live in Maryland.
Some of my Republican colleagues in the House of Representatives have unfairly targeted their jobs, health care benefits and pensions. Yet, the federal workforce did not cause our current budgetary problems – and we know that eliminating their jobs is not a solution.
The American people should view, with concern, legislation that has been introduced in the House (H.R. 657) that attempts to reduce the size of the federal workforce.
That legislation would exempt the Departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security – although these are the same agencies that account for about 60 percent of all civilian federal employees.
Between 2000 and 2010 (primarily during the Bush Administration), these same homeland security-related departments grew by more than 350,000 employees – while civilian employment in other non-homeland security departments and agencies actually declined.
Equally significant to our budgetary debates, the “hidden” federal workforce of contractors and grantees reportedly grew by more than 50 percent during the first half of the Bush years – reaching more than 10 million in 2005. That is almost four times the combined size of all three branches of government and the U.S. Postal Service combined.
So, while I have supported strengthening our homeland security where the evidence has shown that to be necessary, I am mindful that other federal workers protect us as well – from those who assure that our food and water are safe to those who oversee our economy and those who gave us early warning of the recent hurricane.
It also should be noted, from a purely financial viewpoint, that reducing the ability of our federal agencies to oversee the growth in federal contracting is counter-productive to balancing our federal books. This truth was brought home to me quite vividly during the last Congress when I chaired the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation.
In that position, I saw a Coast Guard that was attempting to procure tens of billions of dollars worth of ships and surface assets in the “Deepwater” initiative. Yet, the Coast Guard was unable to structure contracts to the public’s advantage, specify our needs or manage the contractors’ performance.
As a result, a private contractor set the terms for its own performance, specified many of its own contract terms, managed the procurement, certified its own work, and decided when it had earned its bonuses.
To make matters even worse, the American taxpayers purchased boats that did not float.
After a very difficult process, our Subcommittee was able to correct some of our Deepwater failures. Unfortunately, however, Deepwater was not an exception to an otherwise healthy trend.
During the 1990s, for example, our government cut the number of Defense Department contracting officials in half.
According to the General Accountability Office, the resulting inadequate oversight allowed cumulative cost overruns in 96 major Defense Department acquisition programs totaling nearly $300 billion.
For years now, we have been asking our public servants at every level of government to do more with less. We further reduce their ability to protect us and our government resources at our peril.
Our Labor Day message to those of our neighbors who have been called to public service should be one of gratitude and respect.
Attacking those who serve us is not only unfair; it is contrary to our national self-interest.
Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.