Hill Democrats Push to Allow Congressional Staff to Unionize

By Mark Tapscott
Mark Tapscott
Mark Tapscott
Congressional Correspondent
Mark Tapscott is an award-winning investigative editor and reporter who covers Congress, national politics, and policy for The Epoch Times. Mark was admitted to the National Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Hall of Fame in 2006 and he was named Journalist of the Year by CPAC in 2008. He was a consulting editor on the Colorado Springs Gazette’s Pulitzer Prize-winning series “Other Than Honorable” in 2014.
February 16, 2022Updated: February 17, 2022

House Democrats led by Rep. Andy Levin of Michigan are pushing a proposal to enable congressional aides to form collective bargaining unions like those that represent nearly half of the federal government’s 2.1 million career civil servants.

“In a matter of days, 130 of my colleagues have joined me to say we could not serve our districts or states without the hard work and dedication of congressional staff, and that we honor the staff-led efforts to organize Congress,” Levin said in a Feb. 8 statement.

“Thus far, congressional staff have driven the unionization process—and they must continue to do so. Questions surrounding exactly how the unionization process will work are appropriate for another day. Today is about a simple proposition—that congressional staff must enjoy the same fundamental rights of freedom of association at work, to organize and bargain collectively for better conditions, that all workers deserve,” Levin said.

Congressional aides working for individual senators and representatives are often underpaid in junior-level positions, routinely put in long hours, and can be fired at will by their bosses.

But aides also are critical factors in the law-making process because they are frequently decisive influences on how a senator or representative votes. Seasoned lobbyists know this, and typically devote significant efforts to developing relationships with key staffers.

Levin’s proposal currently has 144 co-sponsors, all Democrats, including Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, one of the two committees with jurisdiction.

The other is the Committee on House Administration (CHA), chaired by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), a close ally of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) have both expressed support for the staff union effort.

Levin and his colleagues are taking advantage of some unfinished business from the Contract with America Congress led by then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) in 1995.

Among the first acts passed by the Gingrich Congress was the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 that required the legislative branch to be covered by a host of laws from which it had previously exempted itself, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act.

An obscure provision of the law enabled legislative branch employees to organize unions, but congressional staffers could only do so after regulations for doing so were recommended by the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights (OCWR)—then known as the Office of Compliance.

The staffer regulations were issued in 1996, but neither the House nor the Senate approved them. Employees of legislative agencies, including the Library of Congress and the Congressional Research Service (CRS), did organize unions. Now, Levin’s resolution requires OCWR to revisit the staffer regulations from 1996, update them as required, and recommend the revised version to Congress.

Although Lofgren isn’t currently listed among the co-sponsors of Levin’s proposal, she’s pushing it forward through the legislative branch management bureaucracy.

In a Feb. 8 letter to OCWR Board Chairman Barbara Childs Wallace, Lofgren said, “much has changed since 1996. For example, CHA recently took a lead role in drafting and enacting a reform law with significant bipartisan input, and support to update the protections of the CAA to provide greater protections for legislative branch employees, including making it easier for them to assert their rights and protections under the law.

“Accordingly, I request that the [OCWR] Board of Directors … review the regulations it proposed in 1996 related to collective bargaining. It is my hope that an expeditious review will inform the House’s consideration of how to better improve the workplace for our congressional staff.”

A Lofgren spokesman didn’t respond to The Epoch Times’ request for comment. A briefing by her top committee aide, Jamie Fleet, of House Democrats’ chiefs of staff reportedly didn’t answer their many questions on how such a union would function.

Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.), the ranking Republican on CHA, however, told The Epoch Times that he fears a unionized congressional staff will give too much influence on the legislative process to federal unions that already exercise great power over the executive branch:

“Allowing congressional offices and committees to unionize could potentially create numerous conflicts of interest by enabling unions to have undue influence over members and the legislative process.

“Unions can play an important role in workplaces. They just don’t work with Congress’ unique political structure and constitutional responsibilities on behalf of the American people. Furthermore, the majority’s plan to adopt regulations that were drafted 26 years ago, as outlined in the resolution supported by 144 of my Democratic colleagues, will create more dysfunction in Washington,” he said.

Levin’s resolution only applies to the House side, but Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) is considering introducing a similar measure covering the upper chamber that is expected to attract support from all of his Democratic colleagues.

Certain to be among a long list of thorny issues if Levin’s resolution is approved, however, is who would be covered. Daniel Schuman, editor of First Branch Forecast, believes “the House resolution would extend to more than personal, committee, and leadership offices. It also could cover components of the Clerk’s office, Legislative Counsel, the General Counsel, the Parliamentarian, the caucus and party organizations, House Employment Counsel, and more.”

A 1962 executive order by President John F. Kennedy cleared the way for federal employee unions in the executive branch. Nearly half of the 2.1 million federal career civil servants are members of unions, with the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) alone representing more than 670,000.