Eliminating official time would break federal employee unions -- or at least, that's the warning from civil servants who collect their government paychecks while doing union work.

That's just hype, say Congressional critics who sponsored bills to reign in the practice. Ending official time would simply make the unions pay their own people, stopping the subsidy they now get from taxpayers.

Official time allows union representatives to be released from their regular duties so they can instead do union work while receiving full pay and benefits from the federal agencies that employ them.

Hundreds of top union officials are released full time, meaning they do no work for their agencies.

Too big to manage

Wall Street banks were described in 2008 as "too big to fail." Is the federal government too big to manage? A four-part series by the Washington Examiner.

Part One: High-cost union officials get their paychecks from taxpayers but spend no time on the job

Part Two: Union lobbying is bankrolled by taxpayers through official time

Part Three: Union-friendly politicians reap the rewards for protecting official time

Today: Powerful unions block transparency, reforms of official time

Click here to see a summary of the series and find more resources

Click here or on the image above to see our infographic on official time

That cost taxpayers almost $155.6 million in fiscal 2011, the most recent year for which figures are available. The most recent annual disclosures from the three federal employee unions that use the most official time -- the American Federation of Government Employees, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association and the National Treasury Employees Union -- show combined income of more than $273.4 million from member dues and other sources.

“They spend all day long while the taxpayers are paying their salaries, and all they are doing is work on behalf of the union,” said Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., sponsor of a bill to limit the hours unions receive.

“My bill doesn’t take away their rights. It simply says that the unions themselves should pay their salaries, not we the taxpayers,” Gingrey said.

There are four major bills to change the rules governing official time languishing in Congress. None, including Gingrey’s, would eliminate the taxpayer subsidy of unions.

Two bills would increase disclosure requirements. The others would give agency managers more power to limit the number of hours allowed by stripping the Federal Labor Relations Authority of its ability to review agency decisions on the issue.

Official time would still be allowed if both the agency and union determine it is “reasonable, necessary, and in the public interest” under identical bills sponsored by Gingrey and Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.

That's a big loophole. About 75 percent of official time already goes for “general labor-management relations.” The rest is used for negotiating contracts and resolving disputes.

The amount of official time that can be used is determined by the contracts.

None of the bills is likely to pass, according to their sponsors. Even in the Republican-controlled House, there is little interest in taking on the politically powerful federal employee unions, said Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Fla.

Ross has introduced a measure that would require annual disclosures of basic information about the cost and use of official time.

Ross' bill is the only one in either chamber to receive a committee hearing. It passed the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in July.

But Republican House leaders refuse to allow it to the floor for a vote by the full chamber, Ross said.

“It scores negatively with the unions, and therefore, they put pressure on some of my more moderate colleagues in the Republican Party that I think have said, '‘Look, we don't want this coming up,' ” Ross said.

“The unions have asserted themselves in saying, ‘'We don't want this bill moving,' and so it's not moving.”

There is even less momentum in the Senate, which is controlled by more union-friendly Democrats, who receive 90 percent of the political contributions made by unions.

Official time use by federal agencies

Click on the link to view a preview in Google Spreadsheets, and download to explore the documents more.

Note: These agencies have supplied some or all of the data requested either in databases or through PDF files that had to be converted and cleaned by the Washington Examiner.

Official time was created in 1978. In recent years, the cost and the number of hours have ballooned.

In fiscal 2006, union representatives took 2.7 million hours of official time at a cost of $102.1 million, according to the Office of Personnel Management. Five years later, the 3.4 million hours cost $155.6 million, an increase of 26 percent in hours and 52 percent in price.

The largest increase in both time and money was in 2011, when the number of hours rose almost 10 percent and the cost increased by 12 percent.

OPM is not required to publish annual reports on official time use, but has done it as a matter of practice since 2002, sometimes under prodding from Congress. The most recent report is from 2011.

Ross' bill and a companion measure in the Senate, sponsored by Coburn, would mandate annual reporting and set deadlines.

Neither bill would require the name of the union that benefits from the time be disclosed. That would only stiffen opposition, Ross said.

One new disclosure requirement would be that each agency would have to report the number of people it has on full-time release. Coburn's bill also would require that costs of office space be reported.

Several large agencies, including the departments of Defense and Justice, were unable to provide basic information on who was using official time and which unions benefitted in response to Freedom of Information Act requests filed by the Washington Examiner.

The bills to limit official time have more co-sponsors but even less chance of passing, according to their authors.

Gingrey's House version is co-sponsored by 34 Republican colleagues. Coburn's Senate bill has 15 Republican co-signors.

Union officials say they oppose efforts to change official time laws and see them as initial steps in breaking representation of federal workers.

William Wetmore, executive vice president of the AFGE national council that represents workers at the Department of Veterans Affairs, said unions could not afford to pay the full cost of employee representation on their own.

They already have to represent non-members in their bargaining units on contract enforcement and personnel issues.

Official time is a tradeoff for the ban on federal employees striking, said Wetmore, whose $136,771 salary makes him the highest-paid VA worker on full-time release.

The ability to strike is the most powerful tool unions have in collective bargaining with their employers. Without it, federal employee unions lack leverage to ensure management follows the rules of both contracts and the law, he said.

Official time gives unions that ability, he said.

Chris Crane, president of the AFGE National ICE Council, which represents immigration and customs officers for the Department of Homeland Security, said employees are at a disadvantage when they clash with management, especially in disciplinary actions or grievances.

Taxpayers pay for personnel staff and lawyers to defend agency decisions, even if management is breaking worker-protection laws or labor contracts, he said. Official time allows unions to balance that.

“The employees have to join the union and throw money in the pot so the employee has some kind of legal defense fund,” Crane said.

“If you really want to clean things up, go in and get rid of all these full-time attorneys and labor-relations specialists. Managers don’t have to join the union. They get it for free.”