In an amendment to the highway bill now being considered by the Senate, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) wants money saved by extending the federal pay freeze to fund energy projects, an adoption tax credit, and tax deductions for college expenses and for state and local property taxes.
“I believe this amendment is an important first step in growing our economy,” Roberts said as he introduced the legislation last week. Of course, his amendment would punish the household economies of 2.1 million federal workers, including members of Congress, by prolonging the current two-year freeze on basic pay rates for an additional 12 months.
A coalition of two dozen groups representing federal employees sent a letter to senators Monday, urging them to vote against the amendment. The letter from the Federal-Postal Coalition said: “The pay freeze extension in the Roberts amendment will be used to offset changes to energy policy and a long list of tax breaks that have nothing to do with federal employees. It is unacceptable to continually single out the federal workforce to fund programs or tax expenditures that should be broadly borne.”
The two largest federal unions also wrote separately to senators in advance of the vote.
“It is fundamentally wrong for federal employees to be required, again, to serve as the Automatic Teller Machine for programs that have nothing to do with deficit reduction,” wrote Beth Moten, legislative and political director for the American Federation of Government Employees. “Enough is enough.”
Moten and National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) President Colleen M. Kelley reminded senators that the pay freeze, which is scheduled to end this calendar year, is already taking $60 billion from workers over 10 years and the recently enacted measure extending the payroll tax holiday and unemployment benefits will cost future employees an additional $15 billion in the form of increased pension contributions.
“While some in Congress continue to make it a priority to protect the wealthiest Americans from contributing anything to deficit reduction, this [Roberts] amendment would cut another $26 billion from this one group of middle class workers,” said Kelley’s letter.
The Roberts amendment is one more in a long list of Republican bills that would tap federal workers either to help reduce the deficit or pay for various projects. Last month, NTEU released a list of more than 20 “legislative proposals harmful to the federal workforce.”
One piece of legislation meeting that description was a bill the House approved last month that also would extend the pay freeze. So, if the Roberts amendment is approved by the Senate and sent to the House, it’s likely that an extended freeze could win full congressional approval as early as next week. So much for President Obama’s plan to give federal workers a 0.5 percent raise next year.
As much of a sacrifice as Roberts’s bill would cause workers and their families, the hit on employees seemed to be an afterthought for the senator. When he introduced his bill with a speech on the Senate floor Thursday, he made only passing mention of the pay freeze extension. His office did not return calls regarding the pay freeze aspects of his legislation.
Some union leaders and Democrats also aren’t happy with another amendment to the highway bill that would provide funding for rural roads and schools by encouraging retirement-eligible federal employees to work part time.
As my colleague Eric Yoder blogged last week, the approved measure would allow workers to phase into retirement by working part time while keeping a portion of their full annuity.
Under current policy, most federal retirees who return to federal service draw their full retirement payments, but have their salary cut by that amount.
Allowing the employees to work part time rather than hiring full-time replacements presumably would produce the savings that would be used for the roads and schools. These are worthwhile objectives, no doubt. And allowing phased-in retirement has broad support.
But Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii) said he opposed the part-time amendment because: “I must stand up against Congress’s new habit of treating federal employees like a piggy bank. Congress must stop taking from our dedicated federal employees . . . to fund completely unrelated priorities. ”
Staff writer Eric Yoder contributed to this column.
Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson. Follow the Federal Diary on Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP