The nation's largest union for federal employees is working to shore up its Democratic allies as Congress considers slimming the government workforce and cutting agency spending.
The American Federation of Government Employees -- along with other federal employee groups -- has spent much of the past few months railing against Republican proposals to find savings in federal pay and benefits. Just last week, AFGE officials called a bill that would cut the workforce by 10 percent an "unusually thoughtless approach" that is "designed to enrich contractor cronies."
But behind the scenes, the group has matched its snappy press releases with ramped-up contributions to vulnerable Democrats. AFGE's political action committee spent about $251,000 from June 1 to Sept. 30, according to Federal Election Commission filings. That is more than twice the amount AFGE spent during the same period in the last election cycle.
"There is no doubt we are getting more aggressive," AFGE political director Robert Nicklas said in a recent interview. "One of our goals this year is to change the composition of the House and to maintain a Democratic majority in the Senate."
He added: "It's not that Democrats have been across-the-board, 100 percent voting in support of what we'd like, but the contrast of the [GOP] leadership in the House is just stunning."
Federal employees have faced a number of threats to their benefits, pay and numbers since Republicans took over the House in January.
Such threats accelerated in July and August, with debt ceiling negotiations that included proposals to cut hundreds of thousands of jobs, extend the current pay freeze and find $65 billion in entitlement savings. The final deal avoided such specifics, but employees have turned their worries to the supercommittee, which must recommend more than $1 trillion in savings by Nov. 23. Lawmakers from both parties and chambers have suggested increasing employees' contribution to the federal retirement program.
Throughout the year, House Republicans also have characterized the federal workforce as a bloated entity with pay and benefits that are too generous. The debate is never-ending, thanks to conflicting studies on how federal pay compares to private-sector salaries.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has led the way, holding several hearings on reducing the cost of the government workforce. The panel has passed bills that would extend the probationary period for new employees, require agencies to fire those "seriously delinquent" on taxes and reduce the workforce through attrition.
But in a recent interview, committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) rejected the idea that his panel was a threat to federal workers. Federal employee unions, he said, "see their dues shrinking by the number of people shrinking."
He also argued that the panel recently came up with a fair option: Reduce the size of the workforce by requiring agencies to hire only one employee for every three who leave.
"You could pay them less, you could give them less benefits or you could employ less of them," Issa said. "If you've given them their choice, we've given them the most benign -- which is to try to find efficiencies to have a smaller federal workforce, pay them just as well and give them just as many benefits."
A limited pot
Contributions to the union's PAC will limit what AFGE can do in response to such proposals. While the AFGE PAC has spent about $30,000 more this year than in 2009 -- a difference that balloons to $100,000 more when comparing the period between June 1 and Sept. 30 -- contributions have actually slightly decreased.
Year-to-date contributions as of Sept 30 were about $413,000, compared with $435,000 in 2009. Cash on hand as of Sept 30 was $124,474; at the same time in 2009, it was $168,290.
But the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association has fared much better. Cash on hand as of June 30 -- according to its most recent Federal Election Commission filing -- was $469,859. At the same time last campaign cycle, the PAC had more than $100,000 less, with about $353,000 cash on hand.
Like AFGE, the group has also ramped up spending this year, doling out about $111,000 in the first six months, compared to almost $72,000 during that period in 2009. NARFE legislative specialist John Hatton said such spending was the result of increased contributions; members, he said, are "seeing attacks [in Congress] and giving more."
According to FEC filings, NARFE PAC spent more than $2,700 on "PAC pins," as well as $3,000 on postage fees. The House and Senate campaign committees for both Democrats and Republicans each got $15,000.
AFGE has focused its limited funds on the campaigns of vulnerable Democrats, many of whom sit on committees with jurisdiction over large swaths of the federal workforce.
In September, for example, AFGE contributed to the campaigns of Reps. Leonard Boswell (D-Iowa), Bill Owens (D-N.Y.), Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) and Larry Kissel (D-N.C.); all face tough re-elections and all sit on the House Agriculture Committee. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee members Donna Edwards (D-Md.), Tim Bishop (D-N.Y.), Russ Carnahan (D-Mo.) and Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.) also all got AFGE money in their campaign coffers. Bishop and Carnahan are also Republican targets. Boswell also sits on the Transportation Committee.
June saw the largest leap in donations with more than $122,000 in disbursements, two to three times as much as other months. The single largest donation went to AmeriPAC, which is chaired by House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and primarily contributes to state Democratic parties. Hoyer's district is also chock-full of federal workers.
But while most money went to Democrats, AFGE also made some donations in June to Republicans, such as Reps. Steven LaTourette of Ohio, Peter King of New York and Frank Wolf of Virginia. LaTourette represents a union-heavy district, while Wolf's Northern Virginia district is home to many federal employees. King, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, has historically supported public-sector workers, most recently joining a successful push to provide back pay for employees of the Federal Aviation Administration who were furloughed this summer.
Nicklas said the increase in June spending most likely was the result of bigger donations to Democratic leadership PACs. But he said the constant attack on federal employees has also energized the union's campaign efforts this year. He used U.S. EPA as an example, citing GOP lawmakers' proposals to cut the agency's funding by as much as 20 percent.
"If you look just at the EPA budget, [it] is being decimated just in terms of part of the debt deal that was passed, let alone the supercommittee's work," Nicklas said. "Cutting the EPA is cutting our ability to protect the public's health. Are we going to rally against that? Yes."
AFGE Council 238 -- which represents EPA employees -- has also launched its own public relations campaign to build grass-roots support for the agency. "Save the Environment-Save the EPA" began in August (Greenwire, Aug. 5). The campaign's website, www.savetheepa.com, is currently urging employees to contact Congress and oppose any potential cuts.
"With a Super Committee budget plan due by November 23, we're running out of time," a recent blog post reads. "You've personally helped protect our environment and safeguarded public health. If you believe the EPA's mission -- and your job -- are worth fighting for, we need you to speak out now."