Government employees feel the danger of anti-government anger

Anti-government infused threats against the IRS and gun violations on federal property are going up. Many government employees see the over-heated political debate these days as a personal danger.

Ralph Barrera/Austin American-Statesman/AP
Vernon Hunter, the lone victim in the fiery plane crash at the IRS building in Austin, was laid to rest at the Central Texas State Veterans Cemetery in Killeen, Texas, Feb. 26. Anti-government acts of violence and protest are giving government employees cause for concern.

Sandy Ressler is worried. So much so that he felt compelled to headline his recent blog post on this way: “I work for the government and I am NOT the enemy.”

As a 25-year veteran of the federal bureaucracy – he’s a program manager at the National Institute of Standards and Technology – he’s concerned that the country “is becoming more and more polarized.”

Mr. Ressler sees the recent suicide pilot who crashed his airplane into an IRS office building in Texas and the shooting attack on security officers at the Pentagon as “canary in the coal mine type of behavior.” Along with many other government employees, he worries that anti-government rhetoric – fueled by the red-hot debate over healthcare reform, the virulent attacks on Barack Obama’s personal character and legitimacy as president, and the more violent fringe of the “tea party” movement – puts government workers in the crosshairs.

Statistics back him up.

The threats are increasing

“Weapons violations on federal properties increased by 10 percent over the last year; threats against IRS facilities are up by 11 percent,” reports Gregg Carlstrom in the Federal Times. “And while threats are up, the level of protection at federal buildings is down. The Federal Protective Service has shrunk by 15 percent over the last seven years; hundreds of IRS buildings have no security at all.”

As it is with members of Congress, the individual tends to be viewed more favorably than the institution. A Gallup Poll last year showed that while only 20 percent of those polled had a positive impression of the federal government, 60 percent said their personal contact with a federal employee had been positive.

But at a time when bipartisanship seems to have died in Washington (along with much of the cordiality that once marked legislative debate), that is small comfort for many federal employees.

"The public sees ‘government' as Capitol Hill, the presidency and elected officials," Hannah Bowers, an analyst at the Veterans Affairs Department, told the Federal Times. "[And] the only time government workers are mentioned in the media is when one of us is caught for some sort of unethical behavior."

The recent attacks on federal offices and employees have gotten the attention of Congress.

“There are over 2 million members of the civil service, and every one of them is entitled to a reasonable degree of personal safety and respect,” says Rep. Jim Moran (D) of Virginia, whose district just across the Potomac River from Washington is home to many federal employees.

Last week, Moran introduced a resolution “affirming the right of federal employees to have a reasonable degree of security on the job.”

A recent congressional hearing pointed up some of the ongoing problems.

“Several federal courthouses have no security presence after hours, on weekends and holidays,” said Jon Adler, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association. “Employees’ only protection is their access card and PIN – it’s a total joke. The bottom line is without a security presence, the offices and their employees are vulnerable to attack.”

IRS employees feel most vulnerable

Not surprisingly, employees of the IRS – the federal tax collection agency – feel most vulnerable, particularly at this time of year.

According to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, more than 1,200 threat and assault cases were investigated between 2001 and 2008, resulting in more than 167 indictments and at least 195 convictions.

“In addition, in recent years, several high profile cases in which disgruntled taxpayers have threatened to kill IRS employees or blow up IRS offices, further underscore the real and constant danger that IRS employees must face every day as they carry out their duties,” Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, told the congressional oversight hearing on federal workplace safety.

After the airplane attack in Austin, Texas, security was beefed up at IRS offices around the country.

“This area remains a top concern for the IRS, and we will be taking a hard look at what we can do in both the short- and long-term to ensure the safety of our employees,” Steven Miller, deputy commissioner for services and enforcement told the congressional hearing.

Valuing civil servants

In its interviews with dozens of government employees, the Federal Times found many who say “they would appreciate stronger condemnations of anti-government actions and rhetoric – and a stronger defense of their value to the country.”

"Officials from the White House on down need to step up and make public rebuttal statements," said Philip Hoffman, a program coordinator at the National Marine Fisheries Service. "It does no good to have a goal of having a world-class workforce if you aren't going to defend them. And it's not hard."

Until then, said Kenneth Goldman, a manager at the Naval Surface Warfare Center, "Fed-bashing may be the only true bipartisan issue.”

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