Congress gives feds reason to clap

Maybe they were feeling patriotic before the Fourth of July.

Maybe they wanted to get out of town before the heat wave.

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

Maybe they were tired of being known as the do-nothing Congress.

For whatever reason, members of Congress in both chambers and both parties and a Senate committee approved separate pieces of legislation Friday that would give federal employees reason for the unusual experience of applauding Capitol Hill.

Not a rousing, standing ovation, mind you, but at least the bills deserve notice because they don’t follow the pattern set by some two-dozen pieces of Republican-sponsored measures, which would cut or limit federal worker compensation and staffing.

The House and Senate approved a broad-based bill that includes a provision allowing phased retirement for federal employees. They would be able to work part-time after retirement, with their salaries and annuities pro-rated.

Proponents on both sides of the partisan divide expect the measure to save tax money while providing a way for experienced workers to transfer skills and knowledge to younger staff members.

“Passage of phased retirement is truly a win-win for the federal workforce and for the American people,” said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “Phased retirement offers civil servants who have earned their full pension a third option instead of just full-time employment or immediate retirement. Phased retirement allows federal employees to continue to contribute their talent and experience to their agency’s mission and saves taxpayer dollars at the same time.”

Many of the bills that would hit federal worker pocketbooks go through Issa’s panel. But on phased retirement, he and federal union leaders found common ground — a rare occurrence indeed.

“For dedicated federal workers who are nearing the end of their careers but not ready to retire, this is a sensible option where they can continue to serve our nation on a part-time basis,” said Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union. “For agencies, phased retirement is a great method to manage the transition to new employees by having them learn from experienced and knowledgeable federal employees who have dedicated their professional lives to public service.

“Ultimately, the phased retirement option will benefit federal employees, agencies and the American people they serve,” she said.

The bill also includes a continued freeze on student loan interest rates, but without a Republican-favored provision to offset the freeze with an increase in federal employee contributions to their retirement program.

Meanwhile, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee gave final approval to bills that would update the Hatch Act, provide agencies with greater power to prevent government contractors from engaging in human trafficking and make it easier for veterans to obtain federal licenses.

The Hatch Act measure would provide a greater range of penalties for federal employees who violate the act. Termination generally is the penalty. The legislation would allow reprimands, demotions and suspensions.

Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner pushed for updating the penalty framework, telling a House subcommittee in May that the current “structure is overly restrictive, can lead to unjust results and may even deter agencies from referring potential violations” to the Office of Special Counsel, which enforces the act.

The bill also would ease prohibitions against state and local government employees whose positions receive federal funding from running for partisan elective office.

Among other provisions, the End Trafficking in Government Contracting Act of 2012 would require companies with federal contracts worth at least $1 million to certify that they have procedures to prevent human trafficking. Under the bill, people guilty of making false promises to lure foreigners for work on government contracts could be sentenced to five years in prison. Human trafficking has been an issue for contractors who supply foreign labor for U.S. military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The committee did not hold a hearing on the legislation, but drew from the Commission on Wartime Contracting, which reported on contracting abuses.

The Veterans Skills to Jobs Act would facilitate employment of veterans by allowing agencies to use the training that veterans received in the military to meet the requirements for federal licenses in certain cases.

The committee gave preliminary approval to the bills Wednesday, but the final vote was delayed until the panel had a quorum on Friday.

federaldiary@washpost.com

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

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

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