Federal workers eye ‘super committee’

Joe Davidson
Columnist September 7, 2011

When the “supercommittee” meets for the first time Thursday, federal employees will have good reason to wonder, “What’s this mean for me?”

The answer, at least in the short term, won’t be good.

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

The 12 members of the bipartisan panel, properly known as the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, are charged with finding $1.5 trillion in federal budget cuts over 10 years. If they don’t get the job done by Thanks­-giving, cuts worth $1.2 trillion will automatically begin taking effect. That money will be on top of the almost $1 trillion in cuts over 10 years that Congress has already approved.

Of course, getting Uncle Sam on a stronger financial footing will be good for the country and that’s good for everyone, including his staff.

Yet, however you slice the numbers, federal agencies will take a hit. And when agencies take a hit, it’s the federal workforce that feels the pain more than anyone. When budgets are cut, measures to cap or cut the workforce, including layoffs, aren’t far behind.

“Impulsive and drastic reductions in the federal workforce may help to scratch an ideological itch,” reads a letter to the committee from Gregory J. Junemann, president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, “but it will surely threaten the government services that taxpayers expect.”

Expect the committee also to consider other budget-reduction tools aimed specifically at federal employees: extending the two-year pay freeze, reducing retirement payments and charging employees more for health insurance are among proposals previously suggested.

“It’s going to be very important, I think, that as those issues are discussed, that we make sure that federal employees are not scapegoated,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat on the supercommittee whose suburban Maryland district is home to thousands of federal workers. He said he will work to make sure the panel does not “balance the budget on the backs of federal employees.”

None of the Republicans on the panel agreed to be interviewed.

Federal employee organizations are trying to fight off measures targeting federal workers with letters to committee members that emphasize the sacrifice the workforce is already making through the two-year pay freeze imposed in January.

“As you remember well, the very first budget reduction move was to freeze federal pay for two years,” National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen M. Kelley reminded the committee co-chairman, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), in a letter last week.

That’s not small change.

The freeze “is a steep price for federal employees to pay, but it will save an estimated $2 billion by the end of FY 2011 and more than $60 billion over the next 10 years,” wrote Beth Moten, legislative and political director of the American Federation of Government Employees, in a letter to Murray.

Federal employee organizations have been proactive in letting the committee know about the concerns of the workforce. But their letters may not carry the same weight as the personal relationships my Washington Post colleague Dan Eggen detailed in his fine piece Wednesday on K Street’s close ties to the debt panel. Eggen reported that many former staffers of the committee members now are lobbyists who will be pressuring their old friends on Capitol Hill on behalf of big businesses.

“When the committee sits down to do its work, it’s not like they’re in an idealized, platonic debating committee,” Bill Allison, editorial director of the Sunlight Foundation, told Eggen. “They’re going to have in mind the interests of those they are most familiar with, including their big donors and former advisers.”

Committee members probably are already familiar with a litany of proposals that would use the federal workforce to save money. While many of the plans have been introduced by conservative Republicans, others carry the imprimatur of President Obama’s bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.

One of the best known of the commission’s recommendations could lead to a change in the way federal employee retirement benefits are calculated. Currently, retirement payments are based on the top three years of income. The commission said that using the top five instead could save $5 billion by 2020. It also could send workers near retirement rushing to the door.

The commission also recommended adding another year to the two-year pay freeze and making employees pay more for their health insurance.

“Putting an unfair financial burden on the backs of federal employees simply because they perform the work of our government is misguided,” Patricia Niehaus, president of the Federal Managers Association, said in her letter to Murray.

Unfair and misguided perhaps, but federal workers should not be surprised to find their backs further bent by additional budget-balancing items when this process is done.

Read more on P ostPolitics.com

High expectations for ‘supercommittee’

Super challenges for ‘supercommittee’

Gallery: Who’s on the debt supercommittee

Follow the Federal Diary on Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

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