This special edition of the Politics Hour combined local and national politics live from Slim's Diner in Petworth, Northwest D.C.
In November 1932, The Washington Post started publishing a new column known as the Federal Diary. For the last 80 years, the Diary has given government workers news that pertains directly to them, from tips for a better work ethic in the office to congressional legislation affecting the federal pay scale. Kojo explores the colorful history of the Federal Diary.
- Joe Davidson Columnist, the Federal Diary, for the Washington Post
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWhen the "Federal Diary" made its newspaper debut in November 1932, Washington was a different city. Franklyn Delano Roosevelt had just defeated Herbert Hoover. The president-elect and Congress were contemplating a constitutional amendment to end prohibition and other ideas to get a depression-scarred economy back.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBack then, as now, the federal worker would factor prominently in discussions about the role of government and how to pay for it, so it made sense that The Washington Post would dedicate a column to the interest of Joe and Jane Fed, everything from tips for a better work ethic in the office to congressional legislation on how it would affect pay and benefits. Last week marked the column's 80th birthday. But Joe Davidson says it's a spry, energetic 80 with no signs of slowing down. Joe Davidson is the columnist for the "Federal Diary" at The Washington Post. Joe, good to see you.
MR. JOE DAVIDSONThanks for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIIn November 1932, the U.S. was still in the depths of a Great Depression, and major changes were around the corner that would transform Washington and the federal government. You dug up the first column written by one George D. Riley. How was this column supposed to work?
DAVIDSONWell, the idea was to -- was for The Post to really acknowledge and report on the federal workforce which, of course, is a major part of the Washington, D.C. community and obviously a major part of The Washington Post readership and, now, audience.
DAVIDSONAnd so the column was started in an effort to serve this population. And it has changed somewhat over the years, I mean, in that very first column that was, in some ways, much more personal. One of the things I quoted last week from the original column had to do with someone who was driving in a shiny new Packard and having driven to the old Griffith stadium and then apparently leaving the first car, an old beater apparently and somehow getting a new Packard and driving home from the stadium in this new car.
NNAMDIWell, somehow very significant at that point in 1932.
NNAMDIBy the way, if you'd like to join this conversation with some of your own experiences -- do you work for the federal government? How has the work changed over the last few decades? You can call us at 800-433-8850. You can send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Our guest is Joe Davidson, he writes the column the "Federal Diary" for The Washington Post.
NNAMDIToday, the "Federal Diary" is an interesting resource for exploring new reports and understanding how legislation could end up affecting government workers. But at various times, as you just kind of mentioned, it was almost a gossip column. What kind of information do you think federal workers need or crave, and how has that changed over time?
DAVIDSONWell, you know, the truth is, also, that some of it changes with the person who's writing the column because there haven't been -- I think, in the history, there may have been 14 but -- about 14 columnists. But since 1940, I think there's only been four of us because a guy named Jerry Clutch (sp?) wrote it for about 28 years, Mike Causey, who is still around, wrote it, I think, for almost 20 years, Steve Barr for eight.
DAVIDSONI've been doing it for a little bit more than four. And there'd been a few other people who did a kind of on a temporary basis, but those are the kind of, the main columnist during that period. And, of course, each of us have our own personalities. And one columnist, and I don't recall which one, describe the "Federal Diary" as kind of a bulletin board for the federal workforce. Well, I don't see myself as a bulletin board coordinator. You know, I see myself as a journalist.
DAVIDSONAnd so I'm less likely to kind of just post things like that that come in about somebody's new car or various other things. And these things might be of interest to a certain segment of the audience. I certainly don't deny that, but, you know, each of us have our own way of approaching it. And so I like to think I put a lot, and I don't like to think. I know I put a lot of reporting into these columns, and it's not just going to be a bulletin board kind of item.
NNAMDIIf you work for the federal government, where do you get information about your employer? Call us at 800-433-8850. How have the last two or three years and the looming showdown over the fiscal cliff affected your work environment and your pay? 800-433-8850. Any favorite columns from the ones you unearthed as you dug into the archives?
DAVIDSONWell, from those that I looked into, in some ways the first is one of my favorites simply because it is the first, and it's almost quaint, I guess, in my view, in the way it approached the federal workforce, this notion of just going to see these little, tiny, very personal tidbits. And so even though I wasn't -- I don't necessarily approach a column that way, I enjoyed -- I certainly enjoyed reading it. In some ways...
NNAMDIWell, the federal workforce was a lot smaller then than it is now.
DAVIDSONWell, yeah. It was probably a much more personal kind of thing, and certainly you, in some ways, you had much greater access to the workforce then. I mean, you didn't have to go through security to get to all of these offices like you do now. The federal -- I mean, these buildings are much more secure now even when I started covering Washington in 1984.
DAVIDSONSo back in the 1930s and '40s, you know, it was much easier to just walk into these federal offices and talk to people and collect some of these tidbits. Now, you know, you can't get past the front door without an appointment and then someone escorting you to and from that one specific appointment.
NNAMDIWas that 1984 when you started covering Washington for The Wall Street Journal?
NNAMDISeems like just yesterday. Eighty years ago, the government was in the midst of a transformation as it will eventually expand into all sorts of areas of our lives. Fast-forward to today and the conversation is often just the opposite. Congress and the president are debating cuts to government spending as we hurtle towards this alleged fiscal cliff. How would federal workers be affected by this showdown?
DAVIDSONWell, it remains to be seen, but it -- but we can say that federal workers have already been affected, which is one thing federal workers are -- will quickly and, I think, rightly point out. They've already been affected in the effort to reduce the deficit. Federal workers, really, are the only group that so far has been targeted. They're in the midst of a pay freeze right now. It was supposed to end this month. It's been extended through March.
DAVIDSONThere have been other cutbacks to retirement. In total, the estimated figure that federal employees have essentially sacrificed over 10 years is $103 billion. And so they have already sacrificed in this fight for the deficit. Nonetheless, they still might be targeted again. I wouldn't be surprised to see some -- an effort to increase or to reduce the government's payments for retirement, and that could take a number of forms.
DAVIDSONOne form that has been mentioned from time to time is reducing the federal -- the way federal retirement is calculated. It's now based on the highest three years of a federal government employee's salary. That could go to the highest five years, which would mean -- would have the effect of lowering their retirement payments. Certainly I think there would be workforce reductions. I think that's coming almost no matter what.
DAVIDSONI think budget cuts will mean that there will be efforts to cut back on the number of employees. Now, hopefully that can be done through attrition, buyouts, as we've already seen in some agencies. Certainly in the Postal Service we've seen buyouts. But, you know, I think there's the possibility of reductions enforced or layoffs, as they're more generally called. I don't -- I'm not predicting layoffs. I'm not expecting that, but I am expecting cutbacks in the workforce probably through attrition.
NNAMDIThe perception of the federal workforce has changed over time from being federal workers or federal employees to being "bureaucrats" to at times being even characterized as fat cats.
NNAMDIWhat is your view about why that has changed over time?
DAVIDSONWell, you know, Ronald Reagan is the one who said government is the problem. You know, that wasn't his full quote, but that's certainly the part that's remembered widely. And I think -- and certainly more recently, John Boehner has had some comments about Republican -- about the federal workforce. Republicans generally talk about the size of government being too big and government getting in the way of industry and innovation.
DAVIDSONAnd I think all of this reflects, you know, on the federal employee, if not directly then indirectly, and I think that they're -- I think that federal employees are a very easy target. But if people, you know, stop and think about the services they provide -- take one agency and not even the largest by far, the Food and -- FDA, Food and Drug Administration, an agency that's responsible for inspecting the food and drugs that we consume every day. You know, what would we do without that kind of agency, you know? Bureau of -- or OSHA that looks at labor standards...
NNAMDIOccupational Safety and Health Administration.
DAVIDSONExactly. Workplace safety around the country in various workplaces. The any number of agencies that guard our national security, you know? So, I mean, obviously, these people provide needed services.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we will talk about the politization, if you will, of the federal workforce with Joe Davidson. 800-433-8850. Politization is what I wanted to say. 800-433-8850 is the number to call. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Joe Davidson, "The Federal Diary" columnist for The Washington Post, and we're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Do you work for the federal government? What are you -- what do you see as the advantages or the disadvantages? 800-433-8850. I wanted to talk about partisanship for a second, Joe, because Maryland is a blue state, D.C. is a blue city and Virginia is, well, now, a purple state.
NNAMDISo it stands to reason that many federal workers who live there would lean -- or who live in this area would lean Democratic. But over the last few election cycles, it seems like federal workers, and especially the unions, have become much more strongly aligned with one party. Is that making things worse in terms of how these issues are handled by Congress and how federal workers are perceived by politicians?
DAVIDSONThat's a -- I think that's a fair question. I'm not sure of the answer, but clearly federal unions have come out in strong support of Barack Obama. They campaigned for him. They donated money toward him. But some unions -- not all of them, but at least a couple -- have given money to Republican congressional candidates. So it's not as if they're 100 percent for Democrats and Barack Obama.
DAVIDSONBut, clearly, on the Hill, when you go to these committee meetings -- and especially on the House side, the House Oversight and Government Affairs Committee, which deals with federal employee issues -- many times you can see a clear Democrat-Republican divide on issues affecting federal employees, with the Democrats siding, essentially, with the position favored by the federal employee union. So you can certainly see that.
DAVIDSONNow, whether or not their endorsement of Barack Obama or the Democrats, the extent to which that affects how Democrats view them and Republicans view them, you know, I think that's up for a discussion. And it's certainly, you know, you can certainly argue it, but it's clear that they do favor the Democrats by and large.
NNAMDIHere is Gerald in Northwest, Wash. Gerald, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
GERALDAfternoon, guys. Hey, look, I have just retired from the Department of Veterans Affairs a couple of years ago. And I work for the Office of Administrative Services. Now, the VA health care system now is one of the models in the country. The nursing standards that were put in place -- veterans have excellent health care because of those standards.
GERALDThe federal employees, the people that I worked for, worked very hard on that, so veterans are getting much better health care than they were getting in the '80s. So the federal employees do a great job in the parks, the Smithsonian. And so it's time that people stop using federal employees as the whipping boy.
NNAMDIHow much -- how many times do you hear that, Joe?
DAVIDSONProbably few -- several times a week. And the other thing is stop using federal employees as the piggy bank. You know, the cost of these -- already as I mentioned a little while ago, the sacrifices, not given up voluntarily, I might add -- sacrifice might imply that.
NNAMDIFederal workforce, you said, has given $103 billion back to the U.S. Treasury.
DAVIDSONOver 10 years, that's right. I mean, that's in the form of pay freeze and other hits on their compensation.
NNAMDIGerald, thank you very much for your call. The Senate recently approved changes to the Hatch Act, which governs how and when federal workers can get involved in politics. And all this seems to cause confusion here in Washington area. What kind of changes do the sponsors envision?
DAVIDSONWell, the main thing that affects federal employees I think was that, previously, federal employees -- it was really only one penalty if they violated the Hatch Act, and that was termination, which was pretty severe obviously. And so in some cases, supervisors didn't want to bring forth allegations against violations of the Hatch Act because the penalty was so severe.
DAVIDSONUnder this new legislation, there'll be a range of penalties available including reprimand, a demotion, even a fine of not more than $1,000. The Hatch Act, this particular legislation also dealt, in fact, dealt primarily with easing restrictions on state and local employees, some of whom are covered by the Hatch Act. Now...
DAVIDSONRight. D.C. employees and people in other jurisdictions, although not all state and local employees in other jurisdictions, but some of them, and so this act eased the restrictions on them as well in terms of if they can run for office or not.
NNAMDIDoes that mean essentially that if somebody who works for the federal government wants to run for office, that person has to leave that position bottom line?
DAVIDSONNo, not always.
NNAMDIThat's what I thought.
DAVIDSONNot always. No.
NNAMDIThat's why it gets confusing.
DAVIDSONYeah. It's confusing and there are different levels. I mean, the Hatch Act specifies different levels, different types of employees. That's one of the things that makes it confusing. There's a number of things you can do. There are a number of things you can't do. Generally speaking, I think people assumed that they can't do hardly anything except vote. And some people think they can't vote when, in fact, the Hatch Act does allow federal employee to greater range of political activity than many people realize.
NNAMDIHere's Dana in Salisbury, Md. Dana, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DANAThank you. Advantages of being a federal employed: well, stable work environment. I get decent pay. I get really good vacation. I have over 15 years, so I do get eight hours of pay period, which is just about five weeks. I get good health care. I pay about five grand a year for that, though. I mean, it's not cheap. Disadvantages: it's very frustrating. Simple things can just want you to pull your hair out. But talking about a lot of ideas from -- basically the American public, you know, they want services.
DANAThey want health care, they want good roads, they want parks that they can go recreate in, but nobody seems to want to realize that we have to pay for it. And, I mean, who do you want providing these services? Do you want people that are highly qualified and dedicated? Well, if you do, you're going to have to pay for it. I take a lot of pride in the work I do. I think the people appreciate the work I do. But people just got to realize, look, you want it, you're going to have to pay for it.
DANAA lot of things have happened in my agency. When I came in in the early '90s, they had a buyout, and to me, that's just kicking the can down the road. Ever since I've been in, they've been saying, oh, within five years, you know, 50-plus percentage of the agency is going to be retired. And that's going on 20 years now.
NNAMDIAnd it's never happened. Joe, I'd like you to comment on that. I'm sorry to cut you off, Dana, but we're running out of time.
DAVIDSONWell, this retirement wave has been talked about for a long time. I think it might be starting to kick in now. It's going to have to kick in at some point because we're talking about the baby boomers. And I think that the recession pushed back the retirement wave because people needed to work longer because there was tough times out there. But these same people have continued to get older, so at some point they will have to retire. And I think that it's probably starting to kick in now.
NNAMDIUnfortunately, most of the stories about Congress these days involves gridlock and hyper-partisanship. But last month, away from the headlines, Congress passed a bill that would strengthen whistle-blower protections for federal workers, something advocates had been pushing for for over a decade. Why is that significant?
DAVIDSONWell, it's significant because they finally got it passed after this decade that you just mentioned. It was an important bill, by the way, to Sen. Daniel Akaka, who is retiring. I profiled him last week. It was one of the things he'd wanted to do for many years. And he -- and so it was finally approved, but for some of the provisions, it -- there had been a previous whistle-blower protection bill more than a decade ago, but some of its provisions had really been whittled away by court decisions.
DAVIDSONSo this legislation overturns some of those court decisions that cut back on whistle-blower rights. It's going to restore the ability of the Office of Special Counsel, which is the main agency enforcing whistle-blower rights, restore its ability to get action against supervisors who retaliate. It also covers some additional employees, notably the transportation security officers. Those are people who do the screening of baggage at airports. They weren't covered previously, and so they will be covered now.
NNAMDIDepartment of Homeland Security not covered?
DAVIDSONWell, TSO is a part of that, Department of Homeland Security.
NNAMDIOK. So some of them are.
NNAMDI"Federal Diary" started out in print six days a week. It's now printed four days a week. And now, apparently, more frequently published online. There've undoubtedly been changes in culture and technology. But how is it that it's now four days a week and every time I call you on the phone, you are on deadline? You seem to be busier now than it was when the column was six days a week.
DAVIDSONWell, there's a couple of things. One, it's in print four days a week. It's not in print more than that online, but there's a blog that I contribute to called the Federal Eye. And I'm part of a team that contributes to that. Its not my blog solely. But that blog, for example, I thought -- filed a blog item last night, but the column is not in print today.
DAVIDSONAnd so the blog...
NNAMDIBut last night was Sunday night.
DAVIDSONYeah, I know.
NNAMDIYou used to get Sunday nights off.
DAVIDSONI know once upon a time.
DAVIDSONThat day -- now that we have blogs, it's like a 24/7 operation. These newspapers are now news organizations, 24/7 news organizations. And so -- and also, The Washington Post I think, even though the column itself doesn't run -- isn't in print as frequently as it used to be, we now have a federal worker page and a federal worker team. And so there's actually more federal worker news.
NNAMDIYou know, you're actually working harder now than you were in 1989 when you cover Washington -- for The Washington Journal.
NNAMDIJoe Davidson, he is the columnist for "The Federal Diary" of The Washington Post. Joe, one more quick question, how come somebody did it anonymously in 1939?
DAVIDSONThat's a good question. I don't know what happened there. When we were listing the columnists, some just said, by the diary columnist.
NNAMDIJoe won't be doing it anonymously.
DAVIDSONI don't think so.
NNAMDIJoe Davidson, always a pleasure. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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