Steny H. Hoyer has been a strong advocate for federal workers during more than three decades representing Maryland in Congress. His district is home to thousands of government employees whose lives are directly affected by the decisions he and his colleagues make.
Although Hoyer is the No. 2 Democrat in the House, his power is limited because Republicans control the chamber. But his efforts were key in keeping federal workers already on the payroll from paying more toward their retirement benefits in last month’s budget agreement, for example. Yet he and other Democrats could not save staffers hired this year and beyond from a substantial increase in out-of-pocket retirement contributions. New hires will contribute 4.4 percent of their pay toward their annuities. That’s much more than the 0.8 percent paid by those hired before last year. Employees hired in 2013 pay 3.1 percent.
With unpaid furlough days, budget cuts and the government shutdown, last year was a “tough year,” he said, as were the two previous years. During that three-year period, the basic pay rates of federal staffers were frozen. Beginning this month, they get a 1 percent increase.
Hoyer said he voted against the budget deal in part because “it gratuitously took aim at federal employees.” Nonetheless, he’s glad it brings “some stability” to the government, and he predicted it would “preclude shutdowns in the short term.”
But he can’t promise there will be no unpaid furlough days this year.
Hoyer discussed federal workplace issues in an interview with the Federal Diary. This is an edited transcript of his remarks:
On employee furloughs in 2014:
Assuming we pass an omnibus appropriations bill before Jan. 15, it will preclude the specter of over the next year having the government to shut down. It will preclude, hopefully, and I say hopefully . . . we believe it will preclude any additional furloughs . . . at least in 2014. The fiscal 2015 budget, under the budget agreement that was reached and passed, is very, very tight. Federal agencies are again going to be squeezed. I don’t think we are in the clear, but I think we are in a much better position than we were in when the furloughs were effected.
This is a congressional election year. Does that make it more likely that federal employees will be a target from certain quarters?
I don’t think there is any doubt the federal employee has been a target and will continue to be a target from a lot of people who ran on the premise that government was bad, government was doing too much, government ought to be substantially reduced in its operations. Unfortunately, that antipathy or opposition to government’s role has been visited on the federal employees by those who hold those views. I don’t think those views have disappeared.
About 200,000 blue-collar federal employees did not get the 1 percent pay hike.
I’m going to be looking at that, trying to address that.
Do you expect Congress to go along with an increase for them?
Well, I . . . don’t know the answer to that question.
Are you willing to speculate on the chances of the wage-grade employees getting that 1 percent increase?
No, because I don’t want them to be disappointed if we don’t get it, but I want them to know we are going to work on it.
Surveys show that federal employee morale is really dropping. Can Congress do anything about that?
Yes, it can. First of all, it needs to get rid of the negative rhetoric when it talks about government being part of the problem, and when it talks about, and I put this in quotes, “bureaucrats,” close quote, clearly used as an epithet, implying people who don’t work as hard as others, people who can’t be fired, people who are just interested in drawing their paycheck and not doing a day’s work for a day's pay.
None of that is true.
But as long as people in Congress talk about it being true, as long as they subject them (federal workers) to the unsureness of the agency enterprise for which they work being funded, as long as they set levels of funding so low that furloughs occur, morale is going to be low.
Our federal employees, in my view — it’s the best civil service in the world.
The Federal Diary has moved to a new home in the A section, where it will appear Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.