- The Washington Times - Friday, April 8, 2011

The Obama administration is more than a year late in releasing an important report on federal government union costs. Clauses within collective bargaining agreements require that the government pay some federal workers for union activities - using tax dollars. This practice, known as “official time,” is documented annually in the Office of Personnel Management’s (OPM)Official Time Usage in the Federal Government Report. Unfortunately, the Obama administration has not released any official time statistics since taking office; 2008 is the latest information available.

According to OPM, “Official time, broadly defined, is paid time off from assigned Government duties to represent a union or its bargaining unit employees.” In other words, government agencies allow some federal employees to do union work while still being paid. This is a boon for government employee unions because they do not need to pay these workers to represent their members and can still collect dues.

In 2008, federal employees logged 2,893,922 hours for union work while still receiving a paycheck from Uncle Sam. This cost taxpayers nearly $121 million for work only benefiting government unions.

Title 5 of the U.S. Code authorizes official time, but that may soon change. In January, Rep. Phil Gingrey, Georgia Republican, introduced the Federal Employee Accountability Act of 2011(H.R. 122). Mr. Gingrey calls official time “an abuse of taxpayer dollars.” He notes that past reporting was voluntary and the number of hours spent on paid union activity could be much higher. The congressman says that doing away with official time could save taxpayers as much as $600 million over five years and $1.2 billion over 10.

In 2002, then-OPM Director Kay Coles James issued a memorandum requiring federal departments and agencies to report the number of hours used for official time at the end of each fiscal year, September 30. For the last several years, OPM published the report in March - until 2009, when it suddenly stopped.

The 2010 report would have covered the 2009 fiscal year, the period from October 2008 through September 2009. The Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) has repeatedly requested the report since December 2010 - nine months after OPM customarily released it and 14 months after the close of the fiscal year.

OPM either did not respond to requests or gave ever-changing deadlines. Each month, OPM assured CEI that the report would be finished the next month. When the deadlines passed, OPM then said the report would be finished another month in the future. At no time did the agency say it was not working on the report, but did maintain the report was not completed and therefore not subject to a Freedom of Information Act request. The fact that the report is now more than a year late shows either willful nonperformance on the part of OPM or simple incompetence.

OPM is not just ducking public inquiries, it is also not responding to request from Congress. Mr. Gingery’s office could not even obtain an updated report. Mr. Gingrey said of OPM’s noncompliance, “by continuously delaying the publication of information regarding union activity on official time, OPM is exhibiting a lack of transparency that will only fuel the uncertainty and distrust of Americans who demand to know where their tax dollars are being spent.”

This lack of transparency highlights a larger issue affecting the Obama administration. President Obama pledged to make his administration the most open and transparent in history.” However, as the Associated Press (AP) recently reported, the president is falling far short on this promise. AP notes that Freedom of Information Act requests increased by 41,000 in 2010 to 544,360. Despite the increase, the administration responded to 12,400 fewer requests than 2009. The news service also described how the administration refused to release information over a third of the time and declined to respond quickly to subjects “described as urgent to especially newsworthy.” Almost half the agencies examined took longer to give out records than in 2009, sometimes weeks longer.

This is a disturbing pattern, especially with respect to labor issues. Last month, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce held a hearing on “The Future of Union Transparency and Accountability.” Rep. Phil Roe, Tennessee Republican, stated that transparency “is now under assault by a culture of union favoritism that dominates the workforce policies of the current administration.”

Indeed, union favoritism has characterized the Obama administration since Day One - from Labor Secretary Hilda Solis’s blatantly pro-union public statements to the recess appointment of former union lawyer Craig Becker to the National Labor Relations Board. Now add official time to that list.

American taxpayers should not have to pay for union activities. At the very least, they have a right to know how much is being spent. OPM should release the official time reports for 2009 and 2010. If it still fails to do so, Congress should look into the matter.

F. Vincent Vernuccio is labor policy counsel at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. CEI research associate William Kovacs contributed to this article.