In a now-infamous, surreptitiously recorded video of a talk with donors, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney made a number of startling statements, most notably that nearly half the electorate will vote for President Barack Obama for no other reason than that they're wholly dependent on the federal government.
But buried in the transcript of Romney's riff session was a little-noticed exchange about federal workers and their unions. Speaking with an attendee, Romney suggested he'd like to fire much of the workforce at the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the U.S. Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), two agencies that serve critical roles in regulating the financial sector.
The video below cuts directly to Romney's remarks:
"And my recommendation would be clean house, immediately. The SEC, the CFTC are disaster areas," an attendee tells Romney in the video.
"I wish they weren't unionized," Romney responded, "so we could go a lot deeper than you're actually allowed to go."
Romney's remarks didn’t escape the attention of the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU), which represents some 150,000 federal employees, including more than 2,800 SEC workers who would presumably lose their jobs in a theoretical housecleaning by President Romney. The SEC workers who NTEU represents serve as accountants, attorneys, IT workers, analysts and secretaries, among others.
Colleen Kelley, president of NTEU, told HuffPost that she doesn't believe Romney was simply blustering to a small-government, anti-regulatory crowd of well-heeled donors. Given remarks he's made throughout the campaign, she said she believes he would try to dramatically shrink the agency's workforce if elected.
"I take him very seriously," Kelley said. "If he could do this, he would."
Romney's comments to donors weren’t the first swipe he's taken at organized labor, regulatory agencies or federal workers in general. Along the campaign trail, the candidate has made a point of vowing to shrink the federal workforce, to gut bedrock labor law and to end the "unfairness of government workers getting better pay and benefits than the taxpayers they serve."
Although Romney suggested unions would put the kibosh on his desired cuts, Kelley said that in fact there isn't much her union could do if a president wanted to hack at, say, the SEC's staff.
Unlike workers in the private sector or the U.S. Postal Service, federal employees can't include no-layoff clauses in their union contracts, just as they can't bargain directly over their wages. Their contracts include stipulations about work rules, meaning cuts have to be carried out according to certain protocol, but ultimately they don't have the power to prevent layoffs.
"It really doesn’t make any sense," Kelley said of Romney's union line. "Unions cannot stop an agency from downsizing, saying they want fewer workers and less work done."
The Romney campaign didn't respond to a query as to whether the candidate stands by the remarks.
J. David Cox, the president of the American Federation of Government Employees, another union representing federal workers, said that there's plenty a President Romney could do to cut federal workforces to the bone if he so desired.
"The law says if you are going to run [reductions in force] in government agencies and downsize, there are regulations you must follow," Cox said. "But there are things a very mean-spirited president could do, which is annihilate government. Even if Congress allocates money to agencies, he can try to obstruct the agency heads from spending money. The president appoints an agency head, Congress allocates money, but the agency chooses not to spend it."
"I actually take him extremely seriously," Cox added.
For both Cox and Kelley, one of the more troubling aspects of Romney's housecleaning remark is that he was speaking specifically about financial regulatory commissions -- agencies that, at their current staffing levels, are already known to fail to protect investors and the public at times. Hacking at the agencies would likely result in even fewer lawbreakers being held accountable.
And besides, Kelley noted, federal hiring has already come to a halt, and recent months have seen the longest sustained drop in federal employment in years.
"If you just look at staffing in federal agencies, it's down," Kelley said. "They're not hiring when employees leave. They're trying to deliver on whatever the critical mission is for their agency with a workforce that isn’t right-sized."