In wake of shutdown, wary feds look to congressional budget talks with caution

Joe Davidson
Columnist October 22, 2013

On Day One of the partial government shutdown, President Obama let federal employees know he was in their corner.

The “political climate,” he wrote in an Oct. 1 letter to them, “too often in recent years, has treated you like a punching bag. You have endured three years of a Federal pay freeze, harmful sequester cuts, and now, a shutdown of our Government.”

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

Having survived the 16-day shutdown, federal workers are getting ready for the next round in the congressional budget fight. But this time they’re keeping a wary eye on their cornerman, even as they try to block the big blows from Republicans across the ring.

The next action will take place in a conference committee that is trying to bridge wide differences in budgets passed by the Democratic-controlled Senate and the Republican-controlled House.

Given the nightmare of the most recent shutdown, another one does not seem likely now. But with the government’s past performance, federal employees have reason to worry. There’s no guarantee that politicians will reach agreement before budget-related deadlines in the coming months.

“The Senate budget proposed by Senator Patty Murray [D-Wash.] cancels sequestration and provides discretionary spending at $1.058 trillion as opposed to $967 billion in the [House Republican] budget,” said Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union. “Ending sequestration funding levels is an NTEU priority. Not doing so will lead to more furloughs for federal employees and less services for the American public.”

More furloughs are possible if the House Republican budget level is adopted, said Sylvia Mathews Burwell, director of the Office of Management and Budget. It “depends where things land as part of this conference,” she said in an interview.

That’s just one reason federal labor leaders want no part of what the Republicans would do to the federal workforce. But they also aren’t too keen on a couple of Obama administration proposals.

“Federal employees are happy to be back at work,” J. David Cox Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said Thursday, when the government reopened. But, he added, “they’re not breaking out their party hats, because the next couple of months are going to be full of danger.”

Danger?

Obama, Cox said during a conference call with reporters, “talked about bipartisan compromise on the budget and possible changes to Social Security and Medicare.” Cox spat out “compromise” as though it dripped with acid.

Referring to three years of a freeze on basic federal pay rates, worker furloughs from sequestration budget cuts and higher pension contributions for new employees, Cox said: “We cannot give one penny more. We have given enough and enough is truly enough. We cannot have compromise.”

But that’s what conference committees do.

House and Senate negotiators have a number of proposals affecting federal employees available for consideration. House Republicans, led by Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), would have federal workers pay an additional 5.5 percentage points of their salaries toward retirement benefits. The GOP plan also calls for cutting the federal workforce by 10 percent through attrition and ending the student loan reimbursement program for federal employees.

Murray’s budget wouldn’t hit feds, but the Obama administration’s proposed spending plan for this fiscal year calls for federal workers to contribute 1.2 percentage points more over three years, that’s 0.4 annually, toward pension benefits. Obama has proposed changing the inflation formula for Social Security benefits to something called chained CPI (consumer price index). That would lower Social Security payments, and federal employee groups have joined other organizations in opposition.

The National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association “remains strongly opposed to any increase in retirement contributions without a corresponding benefit increase,” said Jessica Klement, NARFE’s legislative director.

But most of the organization’s outrage focuses on the chained CPI. It would reduce cost-of-living adjustments by an estimated 0.3 percent per year, NARFE said.

That doesn’t sound like much. But “because this difference would compound over time, it would result in estimated yearly benefits 3 percent lower after 10 years, 6.2 percent lower after 20 years and 9.4 percent lower after 30 years,” according to the organization.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) is on the conference committee and agrees that workers have given enough.

“Speaking personally,” he said, “federal employees have already felt the brunt of bad decisions, and they should not be asked to bear the burden again. You don’t kick someone when they are down.”

He said the president advocated changing the Social Security formula as part of a larger deficit-reduction package that included increased taxes on the wealthy, which Republicans reject.

Employee organizations also want to protect the 1 percent federal pay raise that is scheduled to take effect in January against any legislative attempt to extend the pay freeze.

So far, no legislation has been introduced to block the pay increase, which, as Van Hollen noted, “doesn’t even keep pace with the cost of living.”

Federal employees have “taken a disproportionate hit from the brinkmanship of politicians,” he added. “I think people should look elsewhere.”

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

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

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