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Washington Post: A friend of feds last hearing; Akaka retiring

Wed, September 19, 2012

By Joe Davidson, Published: September 19

With a nod to his home state, Sen. Daniel K. Akaka opens every hearing with "Aloha."

Wednesday's session was a time for those attending the packed hearing he chaired to tell him: "A hui hou."

Until next time.

But there is no next time. The session was the last scheduled for the Hawaiian Democrat as chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on oversight of government management, the federal workforce and the District of Columbia.

The hearing's official title was "Investing in an Effective Federal Workforce" and much was said about that. But the memorable stuff was about Akaka and his years of service to those workers, his state and the nation. He has been chairman since 2007 and was the ranking Democrat on the panel for two years before that.

"I am pleased that we have made progress in a number of areas that have been priorities for me and for this subcommittee," Akaka said in his opening statement. "But there is more work to be done."

"Over the years, I have often said that I believe that the federal government, as the nation's largest employer, has a responsibility to lead by example, to be a model employer," he added. "It is my hope that the work of this subcommittee has moved us toward that goal."

Recognition of Akaka apparently began before the hearing started. As the standing-room-only crowd assembled in the Dirksen Senate Office Building chamber, laughter flowed from an adjoining side room. Then Akaka emerged with a green lei around his neck, a personal gift given to him by Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry, the first witness at the hearing.

After the hearing, Berry said the lei was made from the maile plant and shipped from Hawaii for Akaka.

"The green leaves are very rare and considered sacred/precious in Hawaii," Berry said by e-mail. "The flowers are called 'rays of the sun,' are woven into the leaves and they honor 'wise leadership.'"

At the end of his opening statement, Sen. Ronald H. Johnson (Wis.), the top Republican on the subcommittee, also presented Akaka with a purple lei, leaving the chairman bedecked in a colorful display.

Berry reminded the crowd that "aloha" means love.

"Your love for others has been as constant as the North Star," he told Akaka.

A bit Hallmarky, perhaps, but the emotion Berry expressed for Akaka is shared by many.

"Senator Akaka, I know you will be missed by all of your colleagues in Congress, every staff member, and everyone who has had the pleasure of working with you here in Washington and throughout America during your dedicated years of service," Johnson told the chairman. "In particular, I will miss you."

That's no doubt true of the other senators on the panel, but it's hard to say for sure because they weren't there. Attending Akaka's last hearing as chairman would have been the decent thing for his colleagues to do. But their invisibility at his hearings is the general practice of many panel members. It's not a slap at Akaka, but an indication of how seriously - or not - some members of Congress take federal workforce issues.

Those issues include important matters. The extended freeze on basic federal wages, the retirement pay backlog, training, diversity, recruiting, hiring, performance management and the new contract for transportation security officers were among the topics discussed. But each was touched quickly, more as an overview instead of a deep dive into any one topic.

Yet, across the range of issues and by a range of speakers - from labor, management, good government and a government watchdog - praise for Akaka was the constant.

Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said, "You have been a stalwart friend of federal employees, both during the 14 years you served in the House of Representatives and during your distinguished 22-year career in the U.S. Senate. Your advocacy on behalf of the federal workforce - from your efforts to ensure fair pay and benefits to your actions to protect collective bargaining rights - will be sorely missed by federal employees everywhere."

J. David Cox Sr. testified at the hearing for the first time in his role as the newly elected president of the American Federation of Government Employees. He departed from his prepared text to tell Akaka that the senator was Cox's favorite chairman and favorite senator from his favorite state. Cox's prepared text cites numerous ways Akaka has befriended the federal workforce.

"I am particularly grateful for Chairman Akaka's interest in the unique perspective our members lend to the legislative process," Cox said.

Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service (which has a content-sharing relationship with The Washington Post), noted that while "many do not consider federal workforce issues to be 'sexy,' - Akaka has been "a true hero for federal workers."

Akaka has always been there for federal employees and their issues, sexy or not.

"I'm going to miss it," he said after the hearing.

Feds will miss this friend.


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