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Do You Get What You Vote for? The Sad Saga of VA10 Civil Servants Betrayed by Rep. Barbara Comstock

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Bottom Line Upfront

  1. Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-VA10, has pledged to fight for Federal workers in Congress.
  2. In one of its first actions, the House GOP enacted a harsh anti-civil service rule (the “Holman” rule).
  3. Comstock voted for this attack on the rights of a large share of the 10th District’s citizens and voters.

In November 2016, Virginia’s 10th district was a relatively rarity in the nation: voted for the Democratic Presidential candidate (strongly, despite Russian and FBI intervention on Trump’s behalf, Clinton 51.57%, Trump 41.75%) while going Republican in the Congressional race (reelecting Barbara Comstock by a 6.8-percentage-point margin).  In her race against Democrat LuAnn Bennett, Comstock sought to distance herself from Trump; after supporting Rubio in the GOP Virginia primary, essentially never mentioning Trump until ‘the Billy Bush’ Donald Trump sexual predator video basically forced her to. After that, she explicitly stated:

I cannot in good conscience vote for Donald Trump.

During the campaign, Comstock also sought to distance herself — often tacitly or implicitly — from Trump’s hatred of Federal employees, and also from general GOP attacks on the Federal workforce. Comstock certainly wanted Federal workers in the 10th — the largest single employee group in the district, with major institutions as the CIA headquarters (Langley) and a large number of ‘Three Letter’ offices in the 10th — to see her as some form of reasonable bulwark in a GOP-run House of Representatives.  In other words, many 10th CD voters expected Comstock to play the bulwark role Frank Wolf used to play, until he retired in 2014.

Comstock: I’m a former federal employee who has worked as a senior aide to Congressman Wolf on federal employees’ issues, a Chief Counsel on the largest congressional committee, and a senior official at the Department of Justice. I have the highest respect for all of our federal employees. I will continue Congressman Wolf’s record of being a champion for our federal employees and ensuring they are always treated with fairness and respect.

I’m going to be a strong voice for federal employees within the Republican caucus

Comstock couldn’t have been clearer than that …

When one looks at the 2016 campaign results in the VA10, there certainly were a lot of CC voters: Clinton-Comstock. A reasonable assumption is that many voters expected a divided government. At least some of these 10th CD voters voted tactically: with Hillary Clinton in the White House, it would be useful to have at least one Republican Washington, DC-area House member to moderate the GOP House relative to the Federal work force when working with a Clinton Administration.  That split government (D White House, D Senate, R House) didn’t occur for many reasons — most notably Russia hacking, FBI Director Comey’s intervention, media inadequacies, and Clinton-campaign failures — and as a result, an extremist GOP is now in total control of the US government. With that unified government, Barbara Comstock’s own claimed role as defender of the Federal workforce from within the GOP is even more important.

As soon as the new Congress formed, Comstock’s claims to be “a strong voice for Federal employees” faced an immediate and quite serious test: the House GOP caucus decision to enable targeting individual Civil Service employees.

The “Holman rule,” named after the Indiana congressman who originated it in 1876, allows individual members of the House to add amendments to an appropriations bill that would cut programs and reduce individual salaries down to — theoretically — $1.

This isn’t just a fantasy or esoteric issue. With Trump’s transition team requesting the names of civil servants who worked on issues during the Obama Administration at odds with GOP anti-science orthodoxy (such as social cost of carbon), Trump/GOP attacks on the intelligence community for identifying Russian hacking to help Trump get elected (again, CIA HQ is in the 10th District) and some vicious practices within the House GOP (such as the GOP House Science Committee’s fact-free anti-science rampage — note, Comstock is on the Science committee), is it not hard to imagine a GOP Congress leveraging the Holman Rule to cherry-pick attacks against “inconvenient” civil servants. It is also not hard to see how, with the use of such attacks, the GOP would create fear across broad swaths of the work force in an authoritarian imposition of ideological conformity within what is supposed to be an apolitical civil service.

When proposed, Comstock made what appears to be a half-hearted gesture against the Holman Rule to “demonstrate” that “Federal worker protector” role:

Rep. Barbara Comstock, the only Republican member of Congress from Northern Virginia, voted for an amendment sponsored by Reps. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) and Rob Bishop (R-Utah) to strip the rule from the package.

Okay, she “voted for” an amendment. Chalk one up for vigorous defense of the Federal employee and workforce? Hold it, she didn’t co-sponsor it?  Huh …?? So what was the rationale for her vote?

The rule “diminishes the roles of the authorizing committees in the House, and will make it more difficult to pass appropriations bills in the new Congress,” Comstock’s spokesman, Jeff Marschner, said in a statement.

Wow.  A weak statement by Comstock’s staff on protecting the Civil Service and its non-partisan nature from partisan attacks on individual civil servants. But wait, it gets worse.

However, when the rules package, including the Holman measure, came to the floor Tuesday, [Comstock] voted for it, as did all but three Republicans. All the Democrats voted no.

Here is the rub: Comstock lifted a finger in an essentially meaningless vote to “demonstrate” fidelity to protecting her constituents from GOP overreach, but when the rubber hit the road, however, she didn’t vote against that overreach. Far from joining other National Capitol Region members in public opposition to the rule and seeking to organize a significant block of GOP Representatives to oppose the rules package — alongside Democrats — as long as the Holman Rule was within it, Comstock didn’t even bother to vote against it (along with three other GOP House members, so she wouldn’t have had to “stand alone” in voting against procedures to undermine the civil service.)

What is a reasonable conclusion from this first act of the new GOP-dominated House of Representatives?

Barbara Comstock’s claimed mantle as principled defender of the Federal workforce from GOP excess is not surviving contact with reality.

NOTE: This is a significant signature early House GOP action in regard to the prospects of the Federal work force in a Trump Administration and with GOP control of Congress.  Comstock’s (far) less than vigorous effort to protect the Civil Service is an extremely troubling signal as to her willingness to fight to protect the Civil Service and civil servants from House GOP overreach.

Within the VA-10 community, Comstock’s (lack of) action re the Holman Rule has received minimal attention from concerned parties.  For example, searching Twitter found only this muted Dranesville District Democrats tweet, along with total silence by the VA-10 Democrats, VA Dems, etc. Also, there seems to have been minimal news coverage even mentioning Comstock’s role (I only found the two items linked in this post: WTOP and Washington Post).

Federal workers living and voting in VA-10 likely would certainly find this of interest — whether as a reason to contact Barbara Comstock to fight more vigorously on their behalf or to consider how they will vote in coming elections.  VA-10’s media are remiss in not covering this more directly. And, sadly, Virginia Democratic Party groups (both formal and otherwise) are also remiss in not bringing attention to Comstock’s failure to defend Federal workers and basic Civil Service protections.