A parade of Democratic politicians fired up a crowd of shivering federal employees rallying outside the U.S. Capitol on Thursday in support of better treatment and higher wages.
It was an exercise in hope, not optimism.
The two senators and three representatives who addressed the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) Legislative Conference this week each indicated support for a federal pay raise greater than the 1 percent that President Obama will propose in his budget message next week.
Yet none of them expect the employees to get more than that.
Should federal workers get more than 1 percent?
“Absolutely, it should be higher,” Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (Md.), the No. 2 Democrat in the House, told reporters. Hoyer sponsored the 1990 law that was designed to make federal pay almost, but not quite, comparable to private-sector wages. That law has never been fully enforced.
Will Congress approve a greater increase?
“No,” he said flatly. “Republicans . . . have the perverse judgment that somehow federal employees are overpaid.”
Two key House Republicans who have significant influence over issues affecting the workforce, Darrell Issa (Calif.) and Paul Ryan (Wis.), chairmen of the Oversight and Government Reform and Budget committees respectively, had no comment.
Hoyer arrived to cheers of “Steny, Steny, Steny” and didn’t disappoint the crowd. He cited the $138 billion he said federal employees have contributed to deficit reduction through a three-year freeze on their basic pay rates and other measures.
“We need to bring down the deficit,” he added, “but not on the backs of our federal workers who are making America better everyday. . . . Enough is too much.”
Also addressing the NTEU delegates were Sen. Jon Tester (Mont.), who appeared at Wednesday’s opening session, and Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (Md.), Rep. John Sarbanes (Md.) and Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (Va.), who each spoke at Thursday’s rally.
“This week we are here to ask Congress to support federal workers,” NTEU President Colleen M. Kelley said at Wednesday’s session. “We will fight for a fair pay raise. Federal workers are in danger of slipping from the middle class. That is a disgrace and we cannot let it happen.”
She outlined five priorities for the union:
●●Providing adequate funding for agencies.
●Securing a 3.3 percent pay raise in 2015.
●Controlling drug costs in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHBP) and fighting efforts to shift costs to employees and retirees .
●Opposing efforts to reduce the value of federal employee retirement benefits.
●Restraining federal contracting and lowering the amount contractors are reimbursed to the salary of the vice president.
Kelley said the government’s foundation has been weakened by cuts to the workforce and agency budgets.
“As a result, the very essence of our government is at risk,” she said.
Getting her union ready for this year’s congressional elections, Kelley told the workers: “We need more friends in Congress. Many more.”
She pushed the crowd to reward friends and punish enemies.
“We need to keep those who have supported us, in office,” she said. “We need to unseat those who have targeted your pension, your pay and your jobs. . . . This is where the rubber meets the road. If we fail, the consequences may be dire. If we succeed, we have the chance to change the game and restore lost benefits and ensure fair treatment for all.”
A self-plus-one coverage option won’t be available in the health insurance program for federal employees and retirees until 2016, according to the Office of Personnel Management.
Currently, enrollees in FEHBP may choose between self-only coverage and self and family coverage. Family coverage rates are substantially more expensive and don’t vary by how many additional persons are insured.
A budget law passed in December approved making a self-plus-one option, for the employee and one other person, available to enrollees as soon as 2015. But a spokesman said that OPM “expects to implement the self-plus-one option for the 2016 plan year.”
More than 250 insurance plans participate in the FEHBP, the large majority operating only in local areas. Rates and coverage terms are negotiated annually between the carriers and OPM, a process that starts in the spring and ends with an open season each fall for enrollment decisions for the following year.
The OPM spokesman said in an e-mail that adding the option will require the insurance carriers, federal payroll systems and the federal retirement system to revamp their processes.
“Making this significant change across many systems would need to be completed well before the beginning of the 2015 open season to ensure user testing and quality assurance,” the spokesman said.
Eric Yoder contributed to this column.
Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.