Revised conduct rules critiqued
WASHINGTON -- Changes in the rules covering membership in professional associations were the chief issue addressed in last week's House hearing on proposed new standards of ethical conduct for executive branch employees.
The Office of Government Ethics has received more than 1,000 sets of comments on the proposed revisions to the federal standards of conduct rules and more than 900 of these dealt with the provisions regarding professional associations -- an interest that Stephen D. Potts, government ethics director, says resulted from mischaracterizations in the press.
"The standards of conduct as proposed do not categorically prohibit service on the board of directors of, service as an officer of, or membership in any professional organization," said Potts at the hearing, held by the Post Office and Civil Service Committee's subcommittee on human resources.
"Further," he added, "I cannot conceive of anything in the proposed standards of conduct that would prohibit an employee from being an active member of any organization."
Members of professional associations, however, saw plenty of problems with the language, which did not explicitly ban membership in professional groups, but was worded in a way that could inhibit workers fearful of creating an appearance of impropriety.
"Supervisors not active in associations, or wishing to play it safe, will tend to look at such terms as 'substantive, 'primarily,' 'small portion' and 'occasionally using' and wonder what it means," said Donald G. Weinart, chairman of the Task Force on Government Ethics at the American Society of Association Executives.
With employees "not wishing to run the risk of violating 'ethics,' the result will be a chilling effect on the involvement of federal employees in professional and trade associations," Weinart said, adding that such factors are contrary to the government's traditional encouragement of volunteerism and to President Bush's much-publicized Points of Light program.
Noting such confusion, Potts, who contends that the proposed rules simply formalize current practices, announced at the hearing that his office will review the current policies of individual government agencies governing membership in professional associations.
Comments on the proposed rule changes, including one that would limit to $200 the amount of gifts accepted in an official capacity, came from individual employees, federal agencies, unions and professional associations.
As a classroom assignment, Middlebury College freshmen also commented on the proposals.
Another point of contention was addressed by a representative of the 150,000-member National Federation of Federal Employees, who said the union feels that the $200 ceiling on individual gifts and rewards is "woefully low."
The union said the ceiling could affect emergency grants and no-interest loans provided by the Federal Employee Education and Assistance Fund to workers and their dependents.
Equally concerned about the limit was the Senior Executives Association and the Public Employees Roundtable, which pointed out that the fund, a non-profit organization approved by the Office of Personnel Management, gave nearly $100,000 in scholarships last year.
Potts was not moved.
Desert Storm compensation
A House subcommittee last week unanimously approved a bill to compensate federal and postal employees for pay lost while serving in the Persian Gulf War.
Members of the subcommittee on compensation and employee benefits strongly praised the bill, which would pay federal and postal workers the difference between their military pay and the civilian pay they were earning prior to service. The money would be paid in a lump sum from funds already appropriated for salaries and expenses.
More than 17,000 federal and postal workers served in the gulf war, said Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., the bill's sponsor and chairman of the subcommittee. He commended their service and urged other members of Congress to support the bill.
"We owe these brave men and women a debt of gratitude," Ackerman said, "and we should also recognize that many of these employees fought for our country at great financial sacrifice. The Congress should do all that it can to ease these financial burdens."
The bill also would allow federal and postal employees to make up missed contributions to their savings plans and would extend health and life insurance for the duration of their military service instead of the current one-year extension.
Circuit court judges, bankruptcy judges and magistrates would be exempted from the bill's provisions because they were not placed on leave-without-pay status during military service.
The House Committee on Post Office and Civil Service now must approve the bill before it can reach the full House.
Rep. John Myers, R-Ind., commended the Persian Gulf veterans and stressed the importance of compensating them financially.
"I think it's most appropriate that we do take care of these people who answered the call to duty," Myers said. "We need to keep our hats off and our pockets open."