Five federal-government stories to keep your eye on for 2014

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The previous year provided some captivating federal news, from sequestration and the government shutdown to furloughs and fiscal-cliff debates. And that’s just the budget-battle topics.

Other big stories involved the IRS’s inappropriate actions toward advocacy groups, the NSA’s controversial surveillance programs, plummeting morale at federal agencies and shootings that claimed the lives of employees with the Transportation Security Administration, the Department of the Navy and the U.S. Postal Service.

With the government operating under a new budget, some of the stories about fiscal matters are likely to fade. But other issues are sure to linger well into 2014. Below is a list of topics we’ll be tracking closely:

Federal pay

Obama halted the annual cost-of-living raises for federal employees in 2011 and 2012, and Congress extended the freeze through 2013. That meant three years without an automatic increase, although federal workers were still eligible for performance awards and extra pay for promotions during that time.

The president issued an executive order last year providing for a 1 percent salary increase for 2014, and lawmakers did nothing to stop it from taking effect. As a result, federal pay will rise automatically for the first time since 2010.

Will Congress allow another raise in 2015? If so, will it be bigger to make up for the three years without a pay bump? These questions are likely to bring up the longstanding debate over whether federal workers receive better or worse compensation than their private-sector counterparts.

Federal-worker morale

Government-wide employee satisfaction dropped for the third consecutive year in 2013, hitting its lowest point in the 10-year history of the executive branch’s worker-morale survey. Leadership issues and pay proved to be the biggest drag on scores.

Will the 1 percent pay raise for 2014 make a difference? Can President Obama fill the leadership vacancies that have plagued his administration? It might help that the Senate has enacted new rules to prevent the types of filibusters that hindered the confirmation process for his past political appointees.

Accountability for the HealthCare.gov debacle

Two top officials from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services have retired since the online insurance exchange flopped after going live in October, preventing many users from signing up for health coverage through the site. Tech experts have said the administration made obvious mistakes during the development process and failed to properly test the system.

Chief Operating Officer Michelle Snyder and Chief Information Officer Tony Trenkle, both of whom oversaw HealthCare.gov’s development, have exited CMS, but Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who testified before Congress that she was ultimately to blame for the botched rollout, still has her job. Will anyone else depart from the administration?

The online exchange has shown vast improvement since October, and the enrollment numbers reached above 1 million before the end of the year. But will that number climb to 3.3 million, as Health and Human Services once projected?

Pensions for working-age military retirees

The budget deal that Congress and the president approved last month will trim pension payments for working-age military retirees by one percentage point as part of an effort to reduce deficits. That aspect of the bill has triggered a major backlash from military groups and some lawmakers, including those who voted for the overall budget.

Congressional leaders have hinted that they will revisit the issue this year. Will they propose legislation to overturn the pension change?

NSA spying

Concerns about the National Security Agency’s controversial electronic-surveillance programs have grown louder since NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked details of the techniques in June. Some of the largest and best-known technology companies have demanded that Congress and the president enact strict new limits.

Obama said at a news conference last month that his administration would review the programs and that he may consider drastic changes. He promised to make a “pretty definitive statement” on the matter sometime in January, so we’ll be looking forward to his announcement.

Follow Josh Hicks on TwitterFacebook or Google+. Connect by e-mail at  josh.hicks@washpost.comVisit The Federal Eye, The Fed Page and Post Politics for more federal news. 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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Josh Hicks · December 31, 2013