Federal employee issues on lame duck’s plate

November 13, 2012

Congress returns to work this week with important pieces of federal-employee-related legislation on the lame duck’s plate.

With the White House and Congress struggling to find ways to get the government’s financial house in order, the threat of continued reductions in federal worker compensation and cuts to staff remain real. Already the workforce has sacrificed in the form of a freeze on basic pay rates and higher retirement contributions for many federal employees hired beginning next year.

There are proposals that would take more from the federal workers, for example by basing their retirement calculation on the highest five years of an employee’s salary instead of the highest three. We will deal with those proposals in greater depth in future columns.

Among the measures awaiting action is one affecting federal whistleblowers and a U.S. Postal Service bill that has a government-wide workers’ compensation provision.

Congress has been trying to figure out how to keep the Postal Service afloat for years. The Senate passed a bipartisan bill in April.

When the Senate acted, Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) said “this legislation will change the USPS so it can stay alive throughout the 21st century to serve the people and businesses of this country.”

But the key sponsor of House legislation, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), has called the Senate bill “wholly unacceptable,” because he said the bill does not permit postal officials to quickly close facilities in order to save money.

“Instead of finding savings to help the Postal Service survive, the Senate postal bill has devolved into a special interest spending binge that would actually make things worse,” Issa said. “While the Postal Service is actually trying to shutter some facilities it does not need, the Senate bill forces the Postal Service to keep over 100 excess postal facilities open at a cost of $900 million per year.”

Postal employee unions were ambivalent about the Senate’s legislation, which would affect other federal workers as well, and like Issa’s bill even less. Among other things, the Senate bill would cut some workers’ compensation payments three years after enactment. Not only postal workers, but other federal employees would be covered. Compensation would not be reduced, however, for those who are totally and permanently disabled or already above retirement age.

Guarding whistleblowers

Another bill that the 112th Congress could act on during its final days is the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act.

It would strengthen protection against retaliation from supervisors toward federal employees who report waste, fraud or abuse. This bill has been more than a decade in the making. It was passed by the House in September.

Under the legislation, whistleblower protections would be extended to Transportation Security Administration employees, agency inspectors general would appoint ombudsmen to inform employees about their whistleblower rights and the Office of Special Council could file briefs in support of workers who appeal rulings in certain whistleblower cases.

The bill would close court-created exceptions to an earlier whistleblower protection law, exceptions that had the effect of weakening those protections.

The legislation does not extend protections to national security and intelligence community employees, but that was done in October with a presidential policy directive issued by President Obama.

While some advocates praised the directive as “unprecedented” and “a landmark breakthrough,” they also made it clear they want protections for national security workers codified in law.

“The directive fails to provide whistleblowers with any new enforceable legal rights,” Stephen M. Kohn, executive director of the National Whistleblower Center, said when the directive was issued. “In fact, the directive specifically states that it does not ‘create any right or benefit’ for whistleblowers. This section renders the directive toothless. We are concerned that national security employees may think that this directive gives them some much-needed protections when it does not.”

Stock Act

Both chambers might want to rethink legislation that delayed until Dec. 8 the online posting of the personal financial information of 28,000 high-ranking feds, as required by the Stock Act.

The Dec. 8 date was itself a delay from an earlier requirement to post the information Aug. 30. Congress pushed back the date after strong protests by federal employee organizations, which said the online posting requirement could endanger personal and national security.

The delay was designed to allow more time to study the impact of the law, the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act, which is designed to prohibit conflicts of interest. Employees already disclose the information, but they objected to posting it on the Internet.

Congress also authorized the National Academy of Public Administration six months to study the law’s impact, a period that does not expire until spring. So the current date for posting the data comes well before the results of the study are due. Pushing the posting date back until after the study is completed only makes sense.

“There’s a disconnect there,” Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said shortly after Congress approved the latest Stock Act measure. “I will push for a further delay until we have the benefit of the report.”

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012.
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