The practice of letting federal officials conduct union work as a substitute for their actual jobs should be restricted, argued a letter to congressional leaders Thursday.

Federal officials are allowed to do union tasks instead of their regularly assigned work because of a policy known as official time. The workers retain their title, salary, and benefits while doing the union tasks. The Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) urged congressional leaders to support a bill that would limit the practice.

“Union official time is a taxpayer-funded subsidy to federal employee unions that pays for federal employees’ salary and benefits while they perform union business, including attending union conventions, lobbying Congress, and filing grievances, instead of the federal work they were hired to do,” the letter declares. “Unions should finance their own political activity with members’ dues payments.”

The Official Time Reform Act prohibits federal employees from conducting political activity on union official time. The bill also calls for federal employees to lose service credit toward pension and bonuses if they perform union business for 80 percent or more of the hours in a workday.

“Like all other individuals or organizations, federal employee unions have the right to lobby government, but they should not do so at the taxpayer’s expense,” the letter states. “Congress has taken legislative efforts to root out lobbying by federal employees while using tax dollars. It is time to close the loophole that allows federal employees to engage in political activity while being paid by the taxpayer on official time.”

The CEI letter is addressed to House Speaker Paul Ryan and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. The letter contests official time is not in the best interest of taxpayers since it only serves unions and their members. It adds taxpayer funds could serve a public purpose.

“Political activity performed on official time only serves the interests of unions and their members, not the public,” the letter states. “The taxpayer does not receive a direct benefit in return for subsidizing official time. Taxpayers should know that their tax dollars serve a legitimate public purpose, and are not used to subsidize the political activity of federal employee unions.”

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) found official time cost taxpayers $162 million in 2014. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has expressed some concerns over how official time hours are calculated. It found in a 2014 report that current methods underestimate how much official time hours are actually being used.

“Due to poor tracking and reporting of official time, it is unknown how much official time federal employees use to lobby Congress,” the letter states. “However, any time spent by federal employees engaging in political activity on the behalf of federal employee unions is too much.”

Supporters argue that official time allows federal unions to properly fulfill their legal mandated duties. Federal agencies and unions negotiate official time provisions in their collective bargaining agreements. Federal officials are only allowed to use official time for certain activities like negotiating or filing grievances.

“The goal of this legislation is to eliminate the ability of federal employees to form and join a union,” National Federation of Federal Employees President Randy Erwin said. “And to viciously penalize federal employees who serve as union representatives, like stewards, and singling them out and retroactively cutting their pensions.”

The Official Time Reform Act was introduced earlier this month. It has currently been making its way through committee. Republican leaders have taken on an ambitious agenda, making it unclear if the bill might reach the floor for a vote.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has faced backlash in recent years over questionable treatment practices. The agency subjected veterans to incredibly long wait times which left many dead. The scandal sparked a national outcry when it first broke in 2014.

The scandal was partially blamed on agency employees using official time. The VA spent an estimated $48 million on official time hours back in 2014. The GAO conducted a more recent report Jan. 24 which looked specifically at the VA. It found the agency is still not properly tracking official time hours.

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