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‘Supercommittee’ has thin record on federal worker issues

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On issues of direct importance to federal employees and retirees, the records of the 12 members of the new congressional “supercommittee” range from fairly thin to virtually nonexistent.

The one notable exception is Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), whose district is home to a large number of federal workers and who has consistently advocated for their interests.

The committee, which is to make deficit-cutting recommendations by Thanksgiving under a provision of the law that raised the federal debt ceiling, contains only one member, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who sits on either of the two committees primarily dealing with employee issues: Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs in the Senate, and Oversight and Government Reform in the House.

Portman, however, has not been especially active on the Senate committee, and neither he nor any of the other 11 supercommittee members has sponsored a bill specifically aimed at federal employee issues during this session of Congress.

Voting records are not necessarily a reliable indicator of positions because in many cases provisions affecting federal employee pay, benefits or workplace policies are part of a larger measure such as an appropriations bill. A vote on the parent bill doesn’t necessarily reflect a position on the employee provision.

Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, called the committee a “group with diverse opinions” but said she is “pleased about the Democratic appointees, particularly the appointment of a strong employee advocate [for federal workers] in Chris Van Hollen.”

The supercommittee member by far the most involved in employee issues is Van Hollen, who also was part of talks led by Vice President Biden early in the debt-ceiling debate. Those talks never reached a formal recommendation, but certain ideas involving federal workers were put on the table, including increasing the employee contribution toward retirement and, according to sources, changing the retirement formula to make it less generous.

Van Hollen, who is the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, earlier this year opposed a House Republican-passed budget plan to increase the employee retirement contribution, continue the federal salary schedule freeze for three more years through 2015 and cut the federal workforce by 10 percent through a modified hiring freeze.

Along with other Washington-area members of Congress who represent districts with large populations of federal employees and retirees, he co-signed letters in prior years urging that federal employee raises be increased to the amount going to uniformed military personnel in the name of “pay parity.”

Last year, he sponsored a bill to speed up the increase in eligibility to retain coverage under the Federal Employees Health Benefits program for adult children up to age 26, rather than 22. That bill did not pass, however, and the increase took effect at the start of this year, under terms of the health insurance reform law of early last year. He also has been a primary sponsor of a bill to expand protections for federal whistleblowers, which has passed the House and Senate in different versions in recent years but has yet to become law because of difficulty ironing out differences.

Van Hollen also has sponsored bills to protect federal employees with severe disabilities from losing their government jobs as a result of contracting out, and to allow federal retirees to pay their FEHB premiums with pre-tax money. He also was active in an effort during President George W. Bush’s administration to scale back the Defense Department’s National Security Personnel System, an alternative personnel program largely unpopular with employees and their unions.

Portman as a House member sponsored increases in allowable investments in retirement savings plans that affected the federal employee Thrift Savings Plan because it operates under the same general tax rules as all such plans.

During debate over creation of the Department of Homeland Security, he was a leading voice for flexibility in personnel policies for the then-new department, which ultimately resulted in a personnel policy that unions considered anti-labor and that attempted to tie pay more closely to performance, setting a precedent for the later NSPS system. The DHS system was blocked by a series of lawsuits and funding restrictions and ultimately was abandoned without ever being put into practice.

Portman also was Office of Management and Budget director for a time in the Bush administration, where he emphasized a management agenda that included more studies of federal jobs for possible conversion to contract.

Democratic supercommittee members Sens. Patty Murray (Wash.) and Max Baucus (Mont.), along with Van Hollen, were longtime supporters of repealing a program in which the IRS contracted out the collection of some tax debt, a repeal that ultimately was enacted in 2009.

However, Baucus in 2007 urged Bush to remind federal employees of their tax obligations, after Baucus’s Senate Finance Committee issued a report finding that about 450,000 federal employees and retirees owed back taxes.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), as chair of a Finance subcommittee, in 2007 held hearings on several provisions of Social Security law that have the effect of reducing or eliminating Social Security benefits in certain situations involving beneficiaries who also receive annuities from a retirement program that doesn’t include Social Security, such as the Civil Service Retirement System. Repeal proposals backed by federal employee and retiree organizations have circulated for many years but never have made progress, in part because of the potential dollar drain on the Social Security fund.

Staff writer Lisa Rein also contributed to this report.

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