Recognition Week cuts hit at the heart

As if the five-year pay freeze for federal workers and the retirement cutbacks included in the House budget resolution weren’t enough, Congress provided a symbolic but telling blow to them by taking a hit at Public Service Recognition Week, of all things.

The events for May 1-7 were to include displays on the Mall through which federal agencies would educate the public about their activities. With $150,000 in federal funds footing part of the cost, it’s been a cheap event, as Washington doings go. Nonetheless, it was excluded in the deal that resulted in the long-awaited passage of the 2011 budget.

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

Other Recognition Week events will continue, including a town hall meeting on “perceptions of government, the real value of vital public services and the importance of communicating that value to the American people,” according to its Web site.

Perhaps members of Congress — particularly Republicans in the House — should attend that May 3 meeting instead of their regular Capitol Hill sessions. They might gain some needed insight concerning their perceptions of government workers and the real value of public servants.

If they did attend the town hall, they might come away with an understanding that the value of public employees is undermined by unrelenting harassment — some small, some big — of those workers.

The budget approved by the House last week would be a major step in making federal employees feel unappreciated, perhaps even unwelcome. Among other things, it would add three years to the two-year federal pay freeze and make employees pay more of their income in retirement benefits.

“I just feel the years of honorable and faithful service I’ve given to the government doesn’t seem to be appreciated,” said Curtis Stewart. The 69-year-old Navy Department civilian at Fort Story, Va., has given 50 years to the government, half in the military, half serving those still in uniform or veterans.

Of course, the chief architect of the spending plan, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Budget Committee, doesn’t see it the way Stewart does.

“This is our defining moment,” he said as the debate on his budget drew to a close.

His remark wasn’t limited to the federal employee provisions, but it does capture the way House Republicans in particular have approached the government’s workforce. For example, federal employees who are seriously delinquent on their taxes could be fired under a measure approved by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee last week. It would affect less than 1 percent of the workers, but it shows how House Republicans choose to spend their time on workforce issues.

Ryan’s proposals, which still have a long way to go before becoming law, would cut staffing through attrition by allowing agencies to hire one new worker for every three who retire.

That “gradual, sensible attrition policy,” as his plan calls it, would cut the workforce at a significantly faster rate than the two-for-three replacement plan pushed by the Simpson-Bowles fiscal commission last year.

But it is the five-year pay freeze that could prove to be among the real drivers of attrition.

Because federal retirement payments are based on salaries from the three highest years of employment, imposing a five-year freeze would push many to the door who otherwise would stay. If they are eligible to retire, as many baby boomers are, a five-year freeze would undercut any incentive to delay retirement based on the desire to secure a higher salary, which would bolster retirement calculations.

“When you have a pay freeze, it means your retirement benefits are frozen forever,” said Dan Adcock, legislative director of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association. “It has a lasting and long-term effect on hardworking federal employees.”

The commission considered a proposal to base retirement on the five highest salary years, but Ryan didn’t go that far.

He does, however, want to have federal workers pay more out of their pockets for certain retirement benefits. Employee association analysts say equally sharing the cost of those benefits with the government would have the same impact as a 6 percent cut in pay.

In an April 13 letter, the Federal-Postal Coalition, made up of 22 employee organizations, reminded members of Congress that “most large private-sector employers historically have not required their workers to make any contributions toward their defined-benefit pensions.”

Stewart, who had no plans to retire, has had enough.

“I’ve given all the adult years of my life to our government, either in the military or as a civilian,” he said. “I was proud to do that, and I wanted to continue to do that.”

But now, “I’m being assaulted by the very government that I’m serving,” he added. “And that makes me feel like I should go ahead and retire now.”

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