Police, Firefighters, Power and Money: Taking Power from the States and Giving it to the FLRA

A little-known bill pending on Congress could be the “mother lode” of bureaucracy for one small federal agency. State and local governments may not like more power being transferred to an agency in Washington but what they want may not make much of a difference.

The epitome of bureaucratic victory could be viewed as new legislation that gives a federal agency more expansive powers. When Congress bestows more power on an agency, it usually means a bigger budget, more employees, more prestige, and, perhaps, higher grades for the agency’s employees who are now doing more important work that impacts more people. The political appointees in the agency probably get invitations to more parties and get inside the White House more often. In other words, they are a “player” in the Byzantine world of Washington politics because they have more power and control more money and can impact more people.

Sometimes an agency hits the “mother lode” of bureaucratic victory.

The Federal Labor Relations Authority is a small federal agency that regulates and governs labor relations in the federal government. (Author’s Disclosure: I was one of the original employees of the FLRA when it was created by the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 and enjoyed working there.)

As political appointments go, an appointment to the FLRA is not anywhere near the top of the political food chain. Many Americans could identify Condoleeza Rice or Michael Chertoff or other agency heads. But how many Americans (or federal employees) would be able to identify Dale Cabiniss as the Chairman of the FLRA?

It’s not that what the agency does is not important or that the employees and political appointees don’t work hard and do a good job. FLRA decisions impact federal agencies and employees and, of course, federal employee unions. The decisions they may make can create bigger or smaller units, they determine whether an issue is open to negotiation and they regulate and oversee elections in federal agencies when employees vote to determine if they want a union to represent them. But, in the scheme of national politics, the agency is not that important.

Unknown to most of America, the FLRA may be about to hit the “mother lode” of bureaucratic power and influence. The agency could go from being relatively unknown outside the Washington beltway to one that is frequently cited in local papers around the country.

The reason is HR 980: the “Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act of 2007”.

This bill is expected to get through a House committee and could get passed into law without much notice. If it becomes law, there is little doubt it will be a topic of conversation in state and local governments throughout the country as the governments try to set up new administrative structures, hire new people and seek expertise to deal with the tsunami that is about to hit them.

In effect, the bill would give public safety officers the right to bargain on wages and conditions of employment. A public safety officer means an employee of a public safety agency who is a law enforcement officer, a firefighter, or emergency medical services personnel. Stated differently, police, firefighters and emergency medical services folks around the country would be bargaining with governments on wages and conditions of employment.

The bill says that Congress wants to do thisbecause “The health and safety of the Nation and the best interests of public safety employers and employees can be best protected by the settlement of issues through the processes of collective bargaining.” Of course, Congress is all about politics and keeping happy those who gave enough money to Congressmen to ensure their re-election. Labor unions played a big role in turning Congress back over to the Democrats. One reward would be giving a few billion dollars in new dues money to unions that would represent the public safety officers all over the country in contract negotiations to determine how much money they would make when the new contract becomes effective.

It would be up to the Federal Labor Relations Authority to make the decision as to whether a state already provides the “rights and responsibilities” given by this law. The FLRA would play a role similar to that of the National Labor Relations Board for private companies and the role currently played by the FLRA for labor relations with the federal government. In other words, the FLRA would have an impact on state and local governments throughout the country. The agency will definitely need more people, more money, more office space and will instantly gain prestige and power. Life probably doesn’t get much better than that in a large bureaucracy.

The law would also greatly expand the role of the federal government in state and local governments and, arguably, usurp the power of state governments. On the other hand, that has not been a big detriment in the past as courts have often been willing to interpret the Interstate Commerce Clause of the Constitution to allow more federal intrustion into local political affairs.

With any luck, the bill will at least be subject to scrutiny and debate in the media. Some would argue that unions in the public school systems around the country have not improved our educational system or that unions in American industries such as autos and steel have made American industry unable to compete in a global economic system. Police, firefighters and emergency medical personnel don’t have global competition. But the law could go a long way toward substantially taking resources from state and local budgets to administer and implement new legislation that will take away more control from local governents and transfer it to a small agency in Washington, DC.

Congress will have its own political and monetary considerations that may have little to do with the ability of state and local governments to be effective and to determine their own destiny. A wider debate will undoubtedly create more interest and allow the public to know about and weigh-in on the issues raised by this bill.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47