Rep. Gerry Connolly's agenda
As it turns out, federal employees do have someone in their corner.
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) serves the 11th District of Virginia, whose population includes many feds and government contractors who have a vested interest in the current debate about the management and operation of the federal government.
In a sense, Connolly is filling the shoes of Tom Davis, the former congressman who represented a similar constituency and became one of Capitol Hill’s go-to people on federal technology issues.
Those issues are more pressing than ever given the current budget crisis, and Connolly intends to fight to keep IT management and workforce issues from being compromised by hasty, ill-conceived policies and legislation.
Connolly serves on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, as Davis did. He is also the ranking member of the committee's Technology, Information Policy, Intergovernmental Relations and Procurement Reform Subcommittee and serves on the Federal Workforce, U.S. Postal Service and Labor Policy Subcommittee.
A lot is at stake for Connolly’s constituents. Although his congressional district is considered one of the wealthiest in the nation, given the prospect of further belt-tightening, “we’re just in for a very difficult time here in the national capital region, especially in Northern Virginia,” Connolly told Federal Computer Week in an interview at his Annandale, Va., office.
Currently, one out of four federal contracting dollars goes to the Northern Virginia area, and at least 40 percent of the region’s gross domestic product is dependent on federal spending and investments.
“We can only lose if anything happens to that pie,” he said.
Workforce in the crosshairs
Whatever happens with the budget, Connolly knows that many of his fellow lawmakers believe that sizable savings can be found in the federal workforce.
In February alone, three new bills were introduced that proposed $145 billion in cuts to federal pay and benefits beyond the existing pay freeze, which takes $30 billion annually from federal workers. Among other proposals, an effort to recoup the money from the recent extension of the payroll tax cut and federal unemployment benefits would require feds to give up another $15 billion. And the pending transportation bill would take $40 billion from new and existing feds, Connolly said.
He believes that the cuts, combined with a surging anti-government sentiment, could culminate in a crisis among federal workers.
“This is going to have a devastating impact on morale, productivity and our ability to recruit the workforce in the future,” he said. “Forty-seven percent of the existing federal workforce is eligible for retirement in the next decade or so…and that’s the biggest demographic bulge in the history of the United States."
The growing anti-fed rhetoric also threatens the government’s efforts to replenish its workforce before and after the coming wave of retirements hits, he added. “How are we going to recruit a skilled workforce in the future when you’re disparaging public service in general, when you’re negatively characterizing attributes of federal service and the federal worker?” he asked.
Connolly said the federal workforce has become a well that’s repeatedly tapped for savings, often to address problems that have nothing to do with government employees. For example, there’s a clear link between the gas tax, user fees and tolls when it comes to funding the transportation bill. But there’s no link between federal workers and transit funding, Connolly said, “other than the Republicans and Congress simply didn’t wish to fund it any other way.”
“I predict [that] it’s going to create a crisis in the federal workforce, and the ultimate losers will be our constituents,” he said. “These federal workers are the ones we call on when we have a Social Security problem or a Veterans [Affairs] health issue or to make sure our national parks are safe and available to us.”
Contrary to complaints that government workers are underperforming and lazy, Connolly said feds are often “overwhelmingly highly motivated” and want to help solve the government’s challenges.
“[Feds] are more than puzzled; they’re deeply distressed at the tone and tenor of the public debate, and it’s the cheapest of cheap shots and demagogic tactics to take this turn and pick on federal employees,” he said. “It’s a very sad chapter in public debate, and I hope it will quickly end.”
Critics argue that the federal workforce is vast and constantly growing, part of an obese government with an insatiable appetite. The reality is altogether different, Connolly said. Since the era of President John F. Kennedy, the ratio of federal workers has shrunk from 14.4 per 1,000 citizens to 8.4 per 1,000, making today’s workforce the smallest it’s been in modern times.
“If you look at actual raw numbers, there are 350,000 fewer federal employees today than there were when George H.W. Bush was in the White House 20 years ago,” he said.
People are quick to criticize the size of the government, Connolly said, but when it comes to specific, essential missions such as pharmaceutical oversight and federal firefighters, nothing is more important to citizens that retaining those crucial functions.
“But we’re not even having that rational discussion,” Connolly said.
IT investments are crucial
Government investments in science and technology are essential to U.S. prosperity and economic competitiveness, particularly in fiscally constrained times, Connolly said.
“The Internet was a federal invention, and for many, many years, it was exclusively managed by and for the federal government,” he said. “Then we saw the commercial applications, and it transformed our world.”
Other federally funded research has led to numerous successful inventions, including the Global Positioning System, noise-cancellation technology and nuclear technology, he said.
“Basic science has been a critical role for the federal government since the founding of the republic, and we must not retreat from that,” Connolly said. “If we want to maintain our competitive advantage...we’ve got to be looking for the innovations or we’re going to get our clocks cleaned by the competition.”
With the growing number of successful cyberattacks growing exponentially, cybersecurity will continue to be a growth area for federal contractors and agencies, he said. As the government continues to migrate its systems to cloud platforms, concerns about security, privacy and ownership will become part of the debate.
“We all want cloud computing to work,” Connolly said. “I have a bill that would codify what Vivek [Kundra] began — the 25-point plan and the consolidation of data centers — and double it. That will help foster the partnership between the public sector and the private sector and get us out of this stovepipe and save taxpayers’ money.”
Current strategies to fend off cyberattacks or protect against them are “very, very anemic and not particularly efficacious,” Connolly said, adding that a more aggressive approach to cyber defense is needed.
“If you’re in that business — I don’t care what happens to the size of the federal government — you’re going to grow if you know what you’re doing,” he said.
After we published our interview with Connolly at FCW.com, most readers who commented welcomed his acknowledgment of what the federal workforce has had to give up in the past and stands to lose in the coming years.
“Thank you, Congressman Connolly, for articulating the immediate sacrifices that the federal civilian workforce is making,” wrote Dolan S. “I am furious, and as an up-and-coming IT person, I have turned my back [on federal employment]. It looks like a bridge to nowhere. I am better off shirking any calls from feds in IT [who] want to use my IT skill set and security certifications.”
A reader named Lisa said Connolly is “absolutely correct” and suggested that workforce cuts could more logically come from eliminating underperforming feds and determining whether certain government services are necessary.
“The morale is terrible and only getting worse for federal employees,” she wrote. ”I agree that we need cuts. We need to cut the [deadwood] of employees who abuse the system [and] focus on where the real money is spent and whether or not the public as a whole benefits from the services provided.”
Another reader said Connolly’s prediction of looming turmoil in the federal workforce was right on target. “This Congress won’t be satisfied until they scapegoat all their policy failures onto the civil administrators of those failed policies,” the reader commented. “Congress and the Cato Institute have convinced the public it’s the federal employees’ fault that there is a deficit. Why? Just because we have a middle-class existence and a planned means to survive in our old age?”
But another reader, Scott, offered a rebuttal to Connolly's view. “Every federal employee is a contributor to [the national] debt, so the problem...is how to reduce our federal debt,” he said. “And since our great elected officials will not cut welfare benefits, they choose to cut federal employee pay and benefits.”