The public servants’ defender

When Sen. Ted Kaufman (D-Del.) gets mad, he gives floor speeches, arranges displays of placards and hands out awards.

And if you spit out the term “federal bureaucrat” around him, he will likely do all three. 

Kaufman has been mad — for almost 30 years now, as he recalls — about the verbal abuse federal employees take from anyone who wants to show general disgust with Washington. 

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“It’s bugged the hell out of me to hear people denigrate federal employees,” Kaufman says after pointing out a 10-chart display of “great federal employees” he brought to the Russell Rotunda. Since Kaufman’s January 2009 appointment to the Senate, he has honored one federal employee per week, for a total of 46 employees, to combat what he considers a pervasive problem — the American people using public servants as punching bags for their dissatisfaction with Washington.

Kaufman gives a floor speech every week to highlight a Federal Aviation Administration adviser, an Army National Guard member, an FBI information officer or some other federal employee he considers exemplary. He even made it to the Senate floor for his regular speech during Washington’s blizzard last month.

Kaufman came up with the chart display, which ran last week, after having walked through the Russell Rotunda for 22 years on his way to work for then-Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.). The rotunda would frequently host displays, and he thought his “Great Federal Employees” program was a good fit.

In addition to working for Biden, Kaufman was a member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors for 13 years. He says nearly all of his interactions with federal employees during that time proved that they constitute a smart, dedicated, intelligent and diverse workforce and are not much different from the private sector. (Kaufman spent seven years at the start of his career in the private sector as an engineer for DuPont.) So he just doesn’t see any basis for sweeping attacks on public servants. 

“It’s like blaming [United Auto Workers] for the problems of American automobile manufacturers,” he explains. “The problem is not with the UAW workers; the problem is the automobile manufacturers making bad cars.”

Kaufman began to focus on the denigration of federal employees, as he frequently refers to it, after noticing a slow build-up of the behavior over the years, but no one incident stands out in his mind. 

“It’s much more just a constant,” he says. “It’s like a lot of things; I remember somebody once told me, ‘Once you see a yellow Volkswagen, the world’s full of yellow Volkswagens.’ ” 

He notes that bad-mouthing Washington is now in fashion around the country and that those sentiments can spill over into federal-employee disparagement. After thinking about it, Kaufman comes up with one recent example of rancor targeted at public servants.

“There’s a memo going around town on financial regulatory reform that says, ‘Be sure to use the term “bureaucrat,” ’ ” he says, explaining that people often contort that word to use it in a pejorative sense.

Kaufman has found the federal employees he highlights in a variety of ways. He says he regularly contacts people he respects to ask them for suggestions. He has also been in touch with the Partnership for Public Service and other organizations that work with federal employees.

The public servants Kaufman has honored range in experience, expertise and demographic background. For example, one employee, William Phillips of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, has helped develop new fields of atomic research and won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1997. Another one, Iris Morales, analyzes and corrects beneficiaries’ issues at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. 

Though his Great Federal Employees program isn’t a part of his legislative agenda, Kaufman sees it as one of his official duties. He hopes to highlight 100 federal employees before he leaves office at the end of the year.

“A lot of being a senator is speaking out on issues to try to change attitudes,” he says, “and that’s what I’m trying to do here.”