Joe Davidson
Joe Davidson
Columnist

Retirees get a raise; widely supported whistleblower bill moves

During this pay freeze for U.S. government workers, at least one group of federal employees will see their incomes rise.

As my colleague Eric Yoder reported online, federal retirees will receive in January the first inflation adjustment to their annuity benefits since 2009, an increase of 3.6 percent for most.

Joe Davidson

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. Davidson previously was an assistant city editor at The Washington Post and a Washington and foreign correspondent with The Wall Street Journal, where he covered federal agencies and political campaigns.

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The cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA, will also be paid in Social Security and military retirement benefits, which — like civil service annuities — have been frozen for two years.

“It’s a breath of fresh air that our retired federal employees will receive inflation protection through a COLA increase next year,” said Joseph A. Beaudoin, president of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association. “For the past two years, every federal retiree’s monthly annuity has remained frozen. Meanwhile, their health insurance premiums and Medicare costs have risen and their other retirement savings have declined due to the market downturn.”

The freeze was due to a period of deflation that followed the calculation of the January 2009 payout.

Those who retired under the Civil Service Retirement System will receive the full adjustment, while those who retired under the Federal Employees Retirement System and who are eligible for COLAs will receive 1 percentage point less. The FERS system generally doesn’t pay inflation adjustments until age 62, except to disability retirees, survivor beneficiaries and those subject to mandatory early retirement, such as law-enforcement officers.

Although about four-fifths of active employees are covered by the FERS system, roughly the same portion of retirees draws benefits under CSRS. That’s because the CSRS generally covers those hired through 1983, and FERS generally covers those first hired in 1984 and later. The less-generous COLA arrangement under FERS was part of the law creating that system, which also includes Social Security coverage and employer contributions to the federal retirement savings program.

According to a Congressional Research Service report issued this year, there were about 1.9 million civil service beneficiaries in fiscal 2009, with an average monthly benefit of $2,899 under CSRS and $1,051 under FERS. In addition, there were about 600,000 survivor beneficiaries, with average monthly benefits of $1,360 and $440, respectively.

The COLA has no direct effect on pay raises for active federal employees because the two types of adjustments are determined in different ways. Federal pay was frozen for two years, beginning in January, although that did not stop another form of raise, called a within-grade increase, that is based mainly on longevity.

Proposals are circulating in Congress to extend the salary schedule freeze through 2013 or 2015 and also to deny within-grade increases.

Whistleblower bill moves

Once again, whistleblower legislation is on the move, seeking full congressional approval before someone finds a way to derail it.

With a voice vote, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee approved the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act on Wednesday. No objections were heard, which is a demonstration of the bill’s bipartisan support.

For more than a dozen years, whistleblower advocates and members of Congress have pushed the legislation, only to be repeatedly disappointed. In December, the bill came close to passage before it died unexpectedly in the House.

Among many other protections, the bill allows jury trials under certain circumstances for workers who sue agencies that allegedly retaliate against employees exposing wrongdoing.

“This bill is first and foremost a good government measure,” said Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii). “If federal whistleblowers are not protected from reprisal for reporting waste, fraud, abuse and illegal activity, many will not take the risk, and we fail to protect taxpayers, public health and national security.”

He said the bill is necessary because although Congress strengthened whistleblower protections in 1994, “the Merit Systems Protection Board and the Federal Circuit repeatedly interpreted the law in a way that is inconsistent with congressional intent.”

Unlike so many bills, this one has support from both sides of the political spectrum.

A coalition of conservative groups, including the National Taxpayers Union, Family Research Council Action and the Liberty Coalition, sent a letter to Congress last month urging approval of the measure.

“Whistleblowers have historically made valuable contributions to the cause of overburdened taxpayers,” the coalition said. Change requires “not only fiscal discipline . . . but also an environment that encourages reform from within. . . . Strengthening federal whistleblower protections ought to be an expeditious and non-controversial way of doing so.”

Follow the Federal Diary on Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP. Staff writer Eric Yoder contributed to this report.

 
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