Trio of budget-related measures could affect federal workforce in coming months

January 4, 2013

The penchant of Congress to govern by brinksmanship continues.

The 113th Congress was sworn in Thursday and there’s little reason to think it will behave any better than the 112th. That’s not good for the nation as a whole and it’s particularly rough on federal agencies and their workers.

Instead of providing wise counsel and establishing priorities as good leaders do, Congress sets an example of operational chaos that it would find totally unacceptable in the government operations the legislators oversee.

The brinksmanship has been on display with threats of government shutdowns and recent events leading to the “fiscal cliff” vote on New Year’s Day, after the deadline for congressional action on tax rates.

That vote was not accompanied by action on sequestration, except to delay the across-the-board budget cuts for two months. That’s just about the time that two other issues also haunting federal agencies and their staffs will come to a head.

It’s a budgetary threesome that leaves everyone unsatisfied.

Debt limit: Congress must deal with the nation’s debt ceiling at the end of February. President Obama has vowed not to negotiate. But before agreeing to raising the limit on how much Uncle Sam can borrow, Republicans want significant budget cuts.

Sequester: This is Sam’s term for $1.2 trillion in automatic budget cuts, over 10 years, designed by Congress in 2011 to be so onerous that it would be forced to develop a more reasonable deficit reduction package by the end of last year. Instead, legislators gave themselves two more months.

The delay meant Congress needed to come up with money to cover $24 million in savings it would have realized had the sequester been implemented Jan. 1. Half of that, $12 million, will come from spending cuts. How those cuts will affect agencies and workers is to be determined.

Continuing Resolution: A temporary funding measure, CR (in government lingo) expires March 27. At that point, federal employees are scheduled to get a 0.5 percent pay raise, after a freeze on basic pay rates that is 2 years old this week. House Republicans have repeatedly voted for extending the freeze. It’s unlikely that the Democratic-controlled Senate would approve an extension, but the House action is enough to make feds wary.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) called this “a trinity of worse, worse and worser.” Her suggestion to deal with issues affecting employees and the trinity of issues in one package, instead of a series of “cuts, cuts, cuts,” would reduce employee anxiety.

The same policies that have been debated for two years, on federal pay, retirement benefits and workforce size, will continue to be in play as the trio of deadlines are considered on Capitol Hill. Jessica Klement, legislative director of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, said the debt limit, the sequester and the CR “represent a perfect storm that many may not be expecting since we have avoided going over the fiscal cliff.”

One was avoided, temporarily, yet three other cliffs remain a short distance away.

Don’t be surprised if House Republicans again advance legislation calling on federal employees to give up more in the name of deficit reduction. The workforce already is effectively losing $103 billion over 10 years because of hits to compensation.

“The federal employees have paid too much of a price,” said Rep. Frank R. Wolf (Va.), one of just two Republicans (the other was Rep. Rob Wittman of Virginia) who voted against a bill this week to extend the freeze through 2013. “We need to protect the federal employees, because the person working on cancer research at [the National Institutes of Health] is a federal employee.”

The forces that the cancer researcher will need protection from are other Republicans, says Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.).

For everybody “who cares about a strong federal workforce, this is a time to be on maximum alert,” he said. Republicans always try “to use federal employees as the piggy bank to solve budget issues.” He expects that to continue. “That’s been the case in every one of their proposals.”

Rep. James P. Moran (Va.) wouldn’t dispute that, but he also holds his fellow Democrats responsible.

“Only bad things can happen,” he said. “I see no prospect for anything good coming from the deal that was voted on New Year’s Day.” That deal, negotiated with the Obama administration and congressional leadership, “was disastrous for federal employees particularly,” Moran said, because Democrats “gave up all of the leverage that we could have used to protect federal programs, employees.”

“Now, the only questions asked will be which programs do we cut and how deeply,” said Moran, who voted against the agreement. “I’m beside myself. I’m so upset about it.”

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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