House passage of a bill (HR-1293) to require fuller accounting of official time could prove to be an opening for a broader fight over the role of unions in the federal workplace.

Labor-management issues have been a back-burner item in the early months of a year in which the White House and both chambers of Congress are controlled by Republicans, some of whom are highly critical of the union role in the federal workplace. It was widely expected that by now, for example, the Trump administration would have canceled a labor-management council started by the Obama administration to give unions a greater role in workplace decisions before they are finalized, and to encourage management to be more cooperative with unions; President Bush had quickly abolished a similar council created by President Clinton. However, the current administration has remained silent, taking no action against the council–although not holding or scheduling any further meetings, either.

Further, in imposing a general hiring freeze, later rescinded, and in requiring agencies to produce reorganization plans, the administration told agencies to comply with any bargaining requirements–although it did not provide for an explicit union role.

However, official time, which allows the use of official duty time for certain union-related responsibilities, has proven to be a more testy issue. During the Obama administration, some Republicans on Capitol Hill pushed OPM to compile and release those numbers regularly. OPM under Obama didn’t put out a report after 2014, though. Under the Trump administration, it issued one within two months.

Some Republicans have pressed to limit or even eliminate official time, arguing that federal employees should be spending all their time on official duties. Unions in turn argue that such time was authorized by the Civil Service Reform Act as a tradeoff for their obligation to represent all bargaining unit members, whether or not they pay dues to the union.

Greater reporting on the practice is seen by both sides as a potential first step toward restrictions. Other bills currently pending include HR-1364, to make days spent on more than 80 percent official time not creditable toward a federal annuity computation; and HR-1461 to prohibit any VA employee from being on official time more than 50 percent of the time, prohibit physicians and dentists from being on official time at all, and to bar other employees involved with direct patient care or who are paid at the GS-13 rate or higher from being on it more than 25 percent.