State of the Union: What Obama did and didn’t say about the federal workforce

February 13, 2013

President Obama’s State of the Union speech on Tuesday covered some of the most pressing issues of the day, including gun control, immigration, employment and the national debt. But it hardly mentioned the federal workforce, which faces serious concerns about the threat of cutbacks.

Obama’s closest reference was a remark about the deep automatic spending reductions known as sequestration, which will take place if Congress fails to come up with an alternative deficit-reduction plan by March 1. The president described the provisions as “sudden, harsh, arbitrary cuts.”

From there, Obama quickly moved on to drawing a line on how far he would go to avoid those impacts, saying he would not slash entitlements.

“Some in this Congress have proposed preventing only the defense cuts by making even bigger cuts to things like education and job training, Medicare and Social Security benefits,” the president said. “That idea is even worse.”

Obama later suggested suggested a compromise, saying he could “embrace the need for modest reforms” to Medicare, which is the federal health-care program for retirees.

Republicans leaders last year called for something more akin to a complete overhaul of that system. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), for instance, proposed capping federal contributions toward Medicare for people under age 55 at the time and letting them choose whether to use that money for private insurance or a plan that acts like traditional Medicare.

The House approved that plan last year as part of its 2013 budget, but the legislation went nowhere in the Senate.

Obama laid out some parameters Tuesday for his idea of “modest reforms,” saying he is willing to “enact reforms that will achieve the same amount of health care savings by the beginning of the next decade as the reforms proposed by the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles commission.”

Just to clarify, the Simpson-Bowles commission – technically known as the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform – was a bipartisan panel the president created to create a comprehensive debt-reduction plan.

Congress never voted on the commission’s proposals. Instead, party leaders hit an impasse, the nation headed toward default, and lawmakers approved the sequester in summer 2011 as part of a deal to raise the debt ceiling for awhile.

As for whether Obama’s pledge adds up, Glenn Kessler pointed out in a recent Fact Checker column that the president’s Medicare proposal would match the Simpson-Bowles plan by saving $68 billion in 2022, which is roughly the “beginning of the next decade.”

Obama also proposed ending special tax benefits, which would raise new revenue for the government. In fairness, that could mean fewer cuts for federal workers, programs and services. But again, he didn’t directly reference government workers while talking about that issue.

The president also said during his speech that “we can’t just cut our way to prosperity” by forcing communities to lay off teachers, police and firefighters. While those people count as government employees, most work at the state and local level.

Coincidentally, the nation’s largest federal-worker union rallied on Capitol Hill Tuesday in an effort to persuade lawmakers and the White House to shield its members — along with government programs and services — from spending cuts.

Labor groups claim federal workers have already sacrificed $103 billion toward deficit reduction in the form of pay freezes and reduced retirement benefits for future hires.

Obama’s 2014 budget plan is expected to call for a 1 percent pay increase for federal employees, whose salaries have been frozen for more than two years.

To sound off on what you think the president’s federal-workforce priorities should include, visit The Federal Eye’s Question of the Week page.

 

For more federal news, visit The Federal Eye, The Fed Page and Post Politics.

To connect with Josh Hicks, follow him on Twitter, subscribe to his Facebook page or e-mail hicksja@washpost.com.

E-mail federalworker@washpost.com with news tips and other suggestions.

Josh Hicks covers the federal government and anchors the Federal Eye blog. He reported for newspapers in the Detroit and Seattle suburbs before joining the Post as a contributor to Glenn Kessler’s Fact Checker blog in 2011.
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