Jason Chaffetz vows that he wouldn’t let his daughters work at U.S. EPA.
That’s not what an agency wants to hear from a lawmaker who could become speaker of the House. But since taking the reins of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee earlier this year, the Utah Republican has become one of EPA’s fiercest critics.
The four-term House member, who’s mounted a long-shot bid for speaker, has exposed the agency for failing to respond quickly to rampant sexual harassment and employees caught watching pornography on the job. So frustrated by agency managers’ inaction, Chaffetz has said EPA isn’t a model employer.
"I’ve got two young daughters, too, and I would never send them to the EPA. It’s the most toxic place to work I’ve ever heard of," Chaffetz told EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy at one of his hearings this year that dug into workplace misbehavior at the agency (Greenwire, July 29).
As speaker, Chaffetz would have even more power to expose and embarrass EPA, bringing legislation to the House floor that could cut the agency’s budget, limit its rulemaking authority and keep its management on a tighter leash.
He has already pushed for such congressional action against the agency.
In an op-ed published in The Hill last month, Chaffetz advocated for civil service reforms to better protect workers and called for the Justice Department to investigate the harassment allegations at the agency (E&ENews PM, Sept. 8).
The chairman has also implored EPA to terminate employees who were watching porn while at work, including one worker who was caught by a child viewing explicit images during its "Bring Your Daughters and Sons to Work Day."
"If you’re sitting watching hours of porn on your government computer, fire ’em! Fire ’em!" Chaffetz shouted at a hearing last April (Greenwire, April 30).
He and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the Oversight panel’s ranking member, have asked the EPA inspector general to investigate complaints about management in the agency’s Chicago office after the panel delved into sexual harassment allegations reported there (Greenwire, Sept. 2).
Moreover, Chaffetz has pestered EPA on several other issues, including its development of the Waters of the U.S. rule and its response to the Gold King mine disaster in Colorado.
Union representatives at EPA said the Oversight chairman has been harsh, but his anger has been warranted at times.
"Mr. Chaffetz has indeed been tough on agency management, and for good cause. Quite frankly, the senior executives within the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have collected big salaries and bonuses, but have not always been held accountable for their failures to properly manage the agency," said John O’Grady, president of the American Federation of Government Employees chapter representing EPA workers in the Chicago region.
O’Grady noted how managers were deceived by John Beale, who impersonated a CIA spy while working at EPA and is now in prison for fraud, and allowed sexual harassment to go on for so long in the agency’s Chicago office.
"Those are outrageous situations that the agency has not been willing to deal with," said Karen Kellen, president of AFGE’s national chapter that represents EPA workers. "There’s still an unwillingness to hold their fellow managers accountable."
Kellen testified at the Oversight committee’s July hearing that looked into EPA management, noting that Chaffetz "was very nice to me. Not so nice to the administrator."
After the allegations surfaced, EPA responded to the concerns about sexual harassment and mismanagement at the agency.
McCarthy authored an anti-harassment memo last year. In addition, the agency has planned to provide anti-harassment training for EPA supervisors this year (Greenwire, Sept. 3).
Further, many of the misbehaving EPA employees in question have been forced out of the agency after management took action.
"Harassment of any kind in EPA workplaces is intolerable," the EPA administrator told lawmakers in July.
While Chaffetz has gone after EPA with abandon, Kellen said the congressman is more complex than the caricature of a government-hating GOP lawmaker.
"He has expressed an understanding of the federal workforce. He hasn’t jumped on the bandwagon of bashing the ordinary federal worker, but instead he has gone after the administration," she said. "I definitely have mixed feelings about him. I know there are some issues that we are diametrically opposed on."
Chaffetz has tried to garner the support of federal employees in the past. In a speech at the National Treasury Employees Union’s annual legislative conference earlier this year, the chairman said he needed the union’s "help to figure out a way to root out the bad apples."
"When you have somebody within your organization who isn’t playing by the rules, who may be breaking policy, who may be breaking the law, you can’t just put them on paid administrative leave for a year and not have a consequence," Chaffetz said (Greenwire, Feb. 4).
Kellen is concerned that Chaffetz as speaker would bring tough legislation to the floor that would hamper the federal workforce.
"That’s a real possibility. They [Congress] seem to think that making more rules will make us more effective, when it’s just the opposite. More rules make us less efficient and effective," Kellen said.
What also worries EPA union leaders is that Chaffetz might be more willing to shut the federal government down as speaker. That would send thousands of government workers home without pay until agencies opened up again.
"That is disturbing because that shouldn’t even be an option," Kellen said. "A government shutdown is definitely anti-worker."
Cummings, however, predicted Chaffetz as speaker would have little effect on the House’s overall handling of EPA and federal workforce policy. The Maryland Democrat foresees a bigger impact on issues related to Utah and land rights.
"I know that’s a big deal for him," Cummings said. "I think he would push hard on that — very hard."
GOP lawmakers in the House will pick their candidate tomorrow for the next speaker. Chaffetz is facing off against House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), considered the front-runner in the race (E&ENews PM, Oct. 5).
Whether McCarthy or Chaffetz wins, EPA workers can expect a GOP-controlled House to be tough on their agency and on federal employees in general.
"There’s not a whole lot of Republicans that love EPA," O’Grady said. "Either one [McCarthy and Chaffetz] is going to be hard on federal workers. It’s not really about the two of them but the extreme elements in their party."
Reporter Sean Reilly contributed.