Across-the-Board 3.5 Percent Raise Advances

By Stephen Barr
Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Federal employees would receive a 3.5 percent pay raise next year under a bill approved by a key House Appropriations subcommittee yesterday.

The proposed raise is in line with congressional recommendations for a military raise next year but is more than the 3 percent salary increase recommended by President Bush.

The subcommittee's decision is likely to be accepted by the House and Senate, largely because members of Congress prefer to follow a "pay parity" policy when raising the salaries of government workers.

The raise is part of a bill put together by Rep. Jose E. Serrano (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on financial services and general government, and Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), the ranking minority member.

The bill would provide about $21.4 billion to finance the operations of 20 agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service, in fiscal 2008. Serrano said he "had to make many compromises" to give the bill a chance of making it through Congress to Bush's desk.

The bill's text will not be released until the House Appropriations Committee takes up the measure, but Serrano provided an overview of key provisions.

A controversial IRS program that uses private companies to collect delinquent taxes would be capped at $1 million in 2008, which Serrano said should effectively bring it to an end. The debt-collection companies keep a share of the back taxes they collect, but critics say the arrangement raises the risk of violating taxpayer privacy rights and should be abandoned.

Serrano also said the bill would strengthen curbs on Bush administration efforts to put federal jobs up for competition with the private sector. White House budget officials say the job competitions create more efficient federal operations, but unions dispute the projected savings and say they lower morale.

Regula offered bipartisan support for much of the bill but said the GOP is likely to offer amendments challenging the provisions on the IRS and on federal job competitions.

Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said the proposed raise "is a key factor for federal agencies in their ability to compete with the private sector for the talented, dedicated employees they need."

John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said, "Federal employees who have been faced with unprecedented budget cuts and staff shortfalls certainly deserve an increase in pay. "

Role of Executive Boards

The government's 28 federal executive boards could be a valuable asset in the event of pandemic influenza, but the Bush administration needs to define their role in national emergency plans and improve funding, a review by the Government Accountability Office found.

Executive boards were established in 1961 to coordinate federal activities in areas where large numbers of federal employees work. The Los Angeles board, for example, serves 230 agencies, staffed by about 120,000 federal employees in a six-county area.

But many boards are thinly staffed, the GAO found. They usually depend on the agency with the largest number of employees in the area to provide one or two full-time board staffers, including an executive director. They also rely on their member agencies to provide funding.

In a review of 14 boards, the GAO found that "the levels of support provided to the boards in terms of operating expenses, personnel and equipment vary considerably. For example, some of the executive directors reported they received an operating budget allocation for travel and supplies, while others said they received nothing or very little in this regard."

Some executive directors told the GAO that, because of budget limitations, they were skeptical that the boards should get involved in emergency activities, in part because they would not be able to meet expectations and could inadvertently create misunderstandings during a response to a disaster.

Despite such concerns, the GAO said, the possibility of a flu pandemic -- which could come in waves and pass through communities of all sizes more or less simultaneously -- makes the boards an important part of the nation's emergency network.

The GAO noted that many of the 14 boards in the review are using their community relationships to improve communication and coordination among federal, state and local officials. Some boards have hosted training and other exercises aimed at coping with a flu outbreak. Efforts also are underway to develop a strategic plan that would place emergency preparedness, security and employee safety as key duties for the board.

The executive boards are overseen by the Office of Personnel Management, and the GAO recommended that the OPM work with the Department of Homeland Security to determine what, if any, formal role the boards should play in the government's emergency response network. The OPM, in a letter to the GAO, said it hopes to free up agency funding to support the boards and strengthen their relationship with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a part of Homeland Security.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company