Federal employee retirement could be affected as rivals prepare for the battle of the budget

Joe Davidson
Columnist December 4, 2013

Like the warm-up before a big game, both sides in the battle of the budget are getting ready. And federal employees have a lot at stake in the outcome.

The team in red — the Republicans — support cuts to federal retiree benefits as one way to close the gap between Uncle Sam’s spending and his income.

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

The team in blue — the Democrats — say the federal workforce has already paid enough, over and over again.

So as the Budget Conference Committee, set up to resolve differences in House and Senate spending plans, prepares to resume meeting next week, members of both parties are setting markers letting everyone know what they believe is acceptable and what is not.

Two Republican congressmen offered legislation this week that would reverse scheduled cuts to national security in part by sacrificing some federal retiree benefits.

Reps. Jim Bridenstine (Okla.) and Doug Lamborn (Colo.) propose increasing federal employees’ contribution toward their retirement program from 0.8 percent to 2.0 percent of pay over three years. They also would eliminate the Federal Employee Retirement System Annuity Supplement for new employees and provide a more conservative formula, called the chained CPI, for the calculation of inflation-adjusted retirement benefits.

This would amount to taking $20 billion from federal workers. It’s a long-standing GOP strategy, but this time, the Republicans are using the Democratic Obama administration as cover.

“Our bill cancels national security sequestration for two years by enacting a few Obama-endorsed reforms that will actually produce over $300 billion in savings over 10 years,” Lamborn said. “Two-thirds of the savings will go toward debt reduction.”

Evidently attempting to secure bipartisan support, the congressmen made a point of noting in statements from their offices that “the bill only enacts reforms proposed by President Obama in his FY2014 budget request.”

But that’s not a persuasive argument for any supporters of federal workers.

In a letter sent Wednesday to conference committee leaders, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, said the panel should “reach a deal that acknowledges the value of federal employees . . . and rejecting draconian proposals to require federal employees to pay substantially more for their retirement. For example, the proposal in the House Budget Resolution to require federal employees to pay 5.5 percent more for retirement is unacceptable. . . . Federal employees have been undervalued and underappreciated for too long.”

In a show of union unity, the presidents of the two largest federal labor organizations — the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Treasury Employees Union — will hold a joint news briefing Thursday to denounce plans to make federal workers pay more for retirement.

“Thus far, the federal workforce has contributed $114 billion toward deficit reduction and economic recovery — far more than any other group in America has been asked to sacrifice,” said a statement from the unions. “Enough is enough.”

Procurement reform

Fixing the federal procurement IT process, whose problems were aptly demonstrated by the disastrous launch of HealthCare.gov, is one place there is bipartisan cooperation.

Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), who often clash at House Oversight and Government Reform Committee meetings (which Issa chairs), together are pushing legislation designed to improve that process.

If the bill, which has passed the House and awaits Senate action, had been enacted before the Affordable Care Act Web site opened, many of its problems would have been alleviated or prevented, Connolly said.

“Virtually overlooked in the media coverage of the rough rollout was the fact that HealthCare.gov is largely a symptom of a broader disease: the broken federal information technology acquisition process,” Connolly said. “In a nutshell, the federal government has no idea what technology it needs, struggles to manage what it has and consequently wastes billions of taxpayer dollars on failed IT investments.”

The Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act, or FITARA for those who can’t live without government acronyms, would require certain agencies to have a presidentially appointed chief information officer (CIO). It also calls for the director of the Office of Management and Budget to implement a five-year strategic plan to develop and strengthen the IT acquisition workforce.

One thing the bill does not call for is more CIOs.

With some agencies having more than 10 people with that title, there are too many CIOs now. The problem, according to the congressmen, is that those officials don’t have the tools and authority needed to create an efficient procurement process. Each agency would have one person with that title, if the legislation were approved, but they could have deputy, associate or assistant CIOs.

“We have an accountability problem because there are too many people called ‘Chief Information Officer’ who do not have the authority to back up that title,” Issa said. “According to GAO [Government Accountability Office], there are currently at least 17 major IT projects at risk, with the total value of $102 billion. FITARA will establish clear lines of accountability and authority so that the ‘Chief Information Officer’ has the budget authority and responsibility to manage his or her agency’s IT projects.”

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

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

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