Parties stake out dueling positions on federal workforce issues

April 8

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) left, and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the committee’s ranking Democrat, on April 2. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

The size of the federal workforce and the amount employees pay toward their retirement benefits will be among the issues in competing budget plans the House is set to consider starting today.

A spending outline for the upcoming fiscal year approved on a party-line vote by the House Budget Committee aims to shrink the workforce by attrition and require employees to share equally with the government in funding civil service retirement benefits. However, a vote also is scheduled on a Democratic-sponsored plan that rejects both those ideas.

The plan from Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) would allow agencies to fill only one of three vacancies, with an exception for national security positions, with an eye to reducing the workforce by 10 percent.

However, the alternative from ranking committee Democrat Chris Van Hollen of Maryland says that “proposals to implement an indiscriminate 10 percent across-the-board cut to the Federal civilian workforce would adversely affect security agencies, leaving them unable to manage their total workforce, which includes contractors, and their operations in a cost-effective manner.”

It says that “nearly all” of the growth in federal civilian employment since 2001 has been in security-related agencies such as the Defense, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs and Justice Departments. The increase “in part, represents a transition to ensure civil servants, as opposed to private contractors, are performing inherently governmental work and an increase to a long-depleted acquisition and auditing workforce at the Pentagon to ensure effective management of weapons systems programs, to eliminate the use of contractors to oversee other contractors, and to prevent waste, fraud  and abuse.”

According to the White House’s recently released budget plan, federal civilian employment outside the Postal Service as measured by work-year equivalents grew from 1.7 million in fiscal 2001 to 1.9 million in fiscal 2009 and to an estimated 2.1 million currently. It further says that the four departments cited in the Democratic plan now account for 65.9 percent of the federal workforce, up from 58.8 percent in 2001 (with the Homeland Security portion at the time spread among other agencies).

The Democratic alternative also contains no requirement for employees to pay more toward their retirement benefits, in contrast to the Ryan plan that for most employees would mean an increase in that contribution of about 5.5 percentage points. Nor does it reflect the Ryan plan’s call to end a supplemental retirement benefit paid to many federal workers who retire before 62 and also end a student loan reimbursement program available to agencies as a recruitment and retention incentive.

Both plans are silent regarding a 2015 federal pay raise, in effect leaving room for the 1 percent boost the White House has proposed. Last year, by taking no position on a raise through the entire budget process, Congress allowed the administration’s proposal for a 1 percent January 2014 raise to take effect by default.

Some House Democrats have separately proposed a 3.3 percent raise. Pay raise decisions typically are finalized in a separate appropriations bill.

Several other budget alternatives also have been cleared for a vote, including the White House’s own plan and one from a group of House conservative Republicans that would among other things end the authority for “official time,” on-the-clock time for certain union duties used by federal employees who also serve as union officials.

The competing plans stake out positions on issues but the “budget resolution” itself is expected to go no farther since the Senate already has said it will not draft a counterpart. It instead is proceeding straight to writing appropriations bills, using a budget agreement reached last December as its outline.

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