Gains to be made if GOP courts union members

By the same token, when Republicans go to political prep school, they apparently are taught that bureaucrats are Democrats. Period. This saves both sides the cost of buying and wearing uniforms to identify the "enemy."

What might surprise a lot of people is how many federal union members describe themselves as independents or Republicans. You won't find many of them in the national headquarters of the unions, or at union conventions, where most Republican speakers fear to tread.

But at the rank-and-file level, which is where most people are, more than half swear they are not Democrats.
The American Federation of Government Employees union, largest of the nonpostal groups, which represents about 600,000 white-collar and blue-collar civil servants, says that 18 percent of its members identify themselves as Republicans and 35 percent say they are independents.

Unions, perhaps by accident, maybe by design, give all outward appearances of being arms of the Democratic Party. Attending the convention of a federal or postal union strikes most outsiders as the closest they will come to the Democratic convention.

But those are local union leaders, not — if the numbers are correct — the rank-and-file members who seem to reflect the politics of the region where they live, adjusted for age, sex, race and ethnic differences.

So what does this mean? Good question. It may explain why unions howled all three times when President Bush tried to trim federal pay raises, but were much quieter when President Clinton — seven times — tried the same thing.

And it may explain why Republicans take some incredibly dumb positions just to sock it to feds. Examples include the Republican-backed, House-passed plan to trim pensions of retired federal and military personnel if Congress can't stick to its spending plans.

Or the president's third effort to give federal workers a smaller percentage pay raise than military personnel. Congressional Democrats outflanked Mr. Clinton when he proposed zero or slim pay raises, and congressional Republicans have outflanked Mr. Bush.

Neither of those proposals, to punish former federal workers and old soldiers for congressional lack of restraint, or halving the civilian federal pay raise are likely to win many votes with people who have other political fish to fry, such as the war, the economy and outsourcing.

But the ostrichlike positions of many high-level Republicans could turn millions of current and former federal and military personnel from independents and Republicans into first-time Democratic voters.

Smile, but keep flossing
Odds are good that Congress someday will pass legislation that would give federal workers and retirees the option to purchase separate dental and vision health coverage at group rates. The bill has the backing of Sens. Susan Collins, Maine Republican, and Daniel K. Akaka, Hawaii Democrat. There will be little opposition because federal workers would pay the full premium (the government picks up 72 percent of their regular health care premiums), and senators and staffers have teeth and children, too.

But don't look for the bill, S.B. 2657, to become law anytime soon. Everything is on hold for this year, and enactment next year is a long shot.

Pay raise on track
The 3.5 percent civilian federal pay raise has been tentatively approved by the House, which wants government workers to receive the same raise as military personnel. The White House continues to argue for a smaller (1.5 percent) federal raise, but it is likely to be outflanked again this year. The higher raise would add tens of thousands of dollars to the future pay, benefits and 401(k) plans of workers over their careers.

• Mike Causey, senior editor at, can be reached at 202/895-5132 or mcausey?

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