With air traffic controllers furloughed and travelers delayed at airports, it's time to ask why Uncle Sam is paying 17 air traffic controllers to work full time as representatives for government unions rather than guiding airplanes.

Uncle Sam calls hours that federal workers spend working for their unions and not working for taxpayers "official time." Sixteen of the 17 air traffic controllers on official time make six-figure salaries.

In a report issued in February, just before Presidents Day weekend, the Office of Personnel Management announced that the federal government paid more than $156 million in 2011 for career civil service employees to work on official time, up from $139 million in 2010 and $129 million in 2009.

Government employees, including air traffic controllers, spent more than 3.4 million hours in 2011 on official time, up from 3.1 million in 2010 and 3 million in 2009.

According to OPM's report, "official time, broadly defined, is paid time off from assigned Government duties to represent a union or its bargaining unit employees."

The Department of Transportation spent $17.7 million in 2011 on 264,562 hours of official time, including salaries and benefits for both full-time and part-time employees. Some department employees spent part of their day working for the government union, and others worked for their union full time.

OPM reports numbers of hours on official time. The only way to ascertain the number of full-time employees is to submit a Freedom of Information Act request to each individual agency. Americans for Limited Government, a conservative nonprofit organization, requested the data for each agency.

Kathy Roy, FOIA officer at DOT, reported that 35 employees did no work at all for the department in 2012, including 17 air traffic controllers. go here for the list. They were paid average salaries of $138,000, for a total cost to taxpayers of $4.8 million annually.

Many more DOT employees spent some of their day at departmental duties, with the rest as official time, courtesy of the taxpayer.

At the upper end of the salary range, three New York air traffic controllers who represent the National Air Traffic Controllers Association were paid $179,700 annually for official time, plus subsidized health insurance, retirement fund contributions, vacation and sick leave.

At the lower end, a program analyst in Atlantic City representing the National Federation of Federal Employees was paid $80,748, plus benefits.

At the Environmental Protection Agency, which spent $2.6 million on part-time and full-time official time in 2011, 17 employees were paid an average of $96,000 each not to work at all for the taxpayer. The list can be found here.

Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., introduced a bill to eliminate official time in January entitled the Federal Employee Accountability Act of 2013, with 22 co-sponsors. Gingrey introduced similar legislation in the 111th and 112th Congresses.

The bill would eliminate the practice of federal employees working for unions when they would otherwise be working for the taxpayer. Given the sequester, Congress would be wise to pass the bill.

Federal union representatives cannot negotiate salaries or fringe benefits because federal employee compensation is set by Congress, not union representatives. Federal workers are not allowed to strike.

At the Transportation Department, 92 percent of official time was spent on "general labor-management relations."

Official time has increased under President Obama because he issued an executive order to expand government labor-management forums. These are meetings for managers, employees and unions to discuss labor relations and productivity.

Perhaps these productivity discussions should include bringing back to work the 17 air traffic controllers who are away from their posts, on official time, as flights are delayed across America.

Washington Examiner Columnist Diana Furchtgott-Roth (dfr@manhattan-institute.org), former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor, is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.