Federal Eye: House passes bill that would block pay raises at Defense Dept., VA

Joe Davidson
Columnist June 5, 2012

Developments that strike at the federal workforce have been coming quickly lately.

In the past few days, House Republicans proposed funding the nation’s student loan program with federal retirement money, the House approved legislation that would deny proposed pay raises for more than half the government’s civilian employees, and a union complained that a Pentagon policy leaves its civilian workforce “confused and anxious.”

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

Let’s start with the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, H.R. 5854 in Capitol Hill shorthand. The House approved it overwhelmingly Thursday, with a 407-12 vote. The legislation would affect the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, which together employ more than 50 percent of Uncle Sam’s staff.

The bill does lots of good things, including providing money for military family and veterans’ housing, a vocational rehabilitation loan program, and medical and prosthetic research.

But deep into the bill, Sec. 231 would rescind several important pieces of VA funding for fiscal year 2013: “$62,924,000 are rescinded from ‘Medical services’, $12,737,000 are rescinded from ‘Medical support and compliance’, and $5,593,000 are rescinded from ‘Medical facilities’.”

Why would money be taken from those worthwhile accounts? Because otherwise it would be used to pay for the 0.5 percent civilian pay raise that President Obama has proposed for next year.

“Amounts rescinded in this section shall be derived from amounts that would otherwise have been available for the increase in civilian pay for fiscal year 2013 proposed in the President’s request,” is the legislative language.

So, the House wants to provide services to veterans while attacking the pay of those who deliver the services.

Another section would block Defense Department pay raises.

It’s unlikely that the legislation will get through the Senate in its current form. And if it does, the White House said the president is likely to veto it. A statement from the administration says that it objects, among other things, to the civilian pay sections of the bill, “as well as any other effort to reduce pay for civilian personnel that would effectively extend the freeze on civilian pay through FY 2013.”

That two-year freeze on basic pay rates will cost federal workers $60 billion over 10 years.

“A permanent pay freeze is neither sustainable nor desirable,” the White House statement adds. “The Administration encourages the Congress to support the proposed 0.5 percent pay raise.”

Despite the threatened veto, members of Obama’s party overwhelmingly joined Republicans in voting for the measure.

“Democrats supported the bill because it provides critical funding to programs that support our veterans and our military. There is no disconnect with the White House,” said Mariel Saez, a spokeswoman for Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (Md.), the Democratic whip. He “will work to ensure the provision is dropped during conference.”

Hoyer also spoke against a Republican proposal to pay for an extension of reduced interest rates for student loans by increasing federal employees’ retirement contributions. In a letter to Obama, House and Senate Republican leaders noted that the president’s 2013 budget proposal calls for increasing employee contributions by 1.2 percent over three years, in increments of 0.4 percent per year. The GOP plan would use that increase to pay for the student loan program.

“Such loans are an important aspect of paying for higher education in America, but seeking to have federal employees — who have done more than their share to address our nation’s financial and economic issues — pay for such an extension is the wrong course,” said Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union.

While Capitol Hill proposals are enough to keep federal employees occupied, another situation across the Potomac has them a bit perplexed. In a letter sent Friday to Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, American Federation of Government Employees President John Gage asked for clarification on a workforce policy that was issued and rescinded on the same day in May.

The policy concerns a call by 26 senators and 131 members of the House to “eliminate the arbitrary cap on the civilian workforce.” In similar letters to Panetta, the Senate and House members said that if the cap limiting the workforce to 2010 levels is not lifted, a similar cap should be imposed on contractors.

“If there is work to be done and the funding to pay for that work, managers should not be arbitrarily prevented from using civilian employees,” both letters said.

Despite the arguments from the lawmakers, the Pentagon issued guidance last month extending the cap through 2018, according to Gage’s letter.

“Just when it appeared that the Department could not be more biased in favor of service contractors,” he said, “civilian personnel were hit with this broadside.”

But for unexplained reasons, the Pentagon took the guidance back almost as soon as it was issued.

“Regardless,” Gage wrote, “the issuance of the May 23 guidance has left the civilian workforce more unnecessarily confused and anxious than ever.”

The Pentagon had no comment.

“As a policy, we don’t comment on correspondence sent to the secretary,” said Cynthia O. Smith, a Defense spokeswoman. “The secretary will respond to Mr. Gage as appropriate.”

Union chief steps down

Meanwhile, Gage has announced that he will not seek reelection as president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the nation’s largest federal labor organization.

In a letter sent Tuesday to his union members, Gage said: “I’ve never been able to put the union in the proper place; I’ve never been able to be the activist and simultaneously take care of those who love me. For once, I’m putting my family first.”

An election for his successor will take place at the union’s August convention in Las Vegas.

Gage has been president for nine years and has worked full-time for the AFGE since 1977. High on his list of accomplishments is the union’s victory last year in an election to represent almost 50,000 Transportation Security Administration officers.

“I intend to finish negotiating AFGE’s first contract with TSA,” Gage said in his letter.

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson. Follow the Federal Diary on Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

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