Public opinion, congressional upheaval won't help the federal worker

By Joe Davidson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 6, 2011; 7:14 PM

If all the promises in the Republican Pledge to America are honored like the party's quickly broken commitment to cut government spending by $100 billion, federal employees may have little reason for concern.

Frankie and Flo Fed, however, had better wait before they exhale.

Sure, House Republicans backed off the $100 billion cut almost as soon as Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio picked up his really big gavel. But it doesn't mean that additional promises in the pledge, including those that could negatively affect federal workers, won't be pursued with vigor.

And when it comes to policies that could make life more difficult for Frankie and Flo, it's not just Republicans who'll get the wary eye. It was President Obama, after all, who took a page from the GOP playbook and froze government pay for two years. It was a report by a high-ranking, bipartisan panel that recommended stringent measures to fix the nation's finances, including proposals that would hit federal employees hard.

"The president's and Congress's decision to freeze federal pay shows that legislation adversely affecting federal employees has support," said Carol A. Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association.

Polling data indicate that many people believe federal employees are overpaid, even if some of that is based on misleading information. This mixture of public opinion and financial trouble cooks up quite a stew for government workers. It's a new day - "a moment of truth" in the words of the fiscal reform commission - on the federal employee front, and not just because Republicans control the House.

That GOP control, however, ensures that proposals to slash government spending will be pursued much more aggressively than what would have been the case under the defeated Democrats. Cutting spending almost certainly means cutting government jobs, employee pay and benefits, and, of course, customer service.

"We're going to fight back, I can tell you that, and I don't care where the attacks are coming from," said John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees.

He said federation members plan to demonstrate against cuts when they attend a union conference next month. "We're going to stand up to it, and I think we're going to have to much more aggressively defend ourselves. We're just getting torched," Gage said. "We are going to be on the street. We are going to be trying to bring as much attention to it as possible."

Federal employee leaders hope the divided government will block some of the harsher proposals to save money at the expense of the workforce.

"There is little doubt that the Republican House will pursue an aggressive agenda geared towards attacking federal workers," said Matthew S. Biggs, legislative director of the International Federation of Professional & Technical Engineers. "These attacks will include everything from pay cuts to furloughs to pink slips to attempts to destroy federal employee unions.

"Will legislation like this pass in the House? Probably. They have the numbers to do what they want in the House. However, we believe it is likely that these ideological attacks will face an uphill battle in the Senate, where Chairmen Lieberman and Akaka, both strong supporters of federal workers, will prevent them from seeing the light of day in their committees." Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii) are chairmen of the committee and the subcommittee, respectively, that oversee federal employee issues.

"And, we are confident," Biggs said, "that the Obama administration will also reject many of these ideologically fueled attacks on federal workers."

Yet, as the freeze demonstrates, the administration and congressional Democrats also can dish out heartburn to federal employees.

When Obama proposed the pay freeze, union leaders made impassioned arguments against trying to balance the budget on the backs of Frankie and Flo.

"Let's be clear," said Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union. "Federal employees didn't cause the economic problems the country is facing - the previous administration's policies of increasing spending while cutting taxes, along with Wall Street mismanagement and greed did. But federal employees are willing to work with the administration and Congress to help provide needed services to American taxpayers in the most cost efficient ways possible. At this point, both seem more interested in scoring political points at our expense rather than engaging in joint and productive efforts."

Such arguments will have less resonance if further workforce cutbacks are linked to a larger financial remedy, such as those proposed by the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. Its broad-reaching recommendations last month hit hard at so many places that the points affecting federal workers were lost in many reports.

Congressional Republicans and Democrats are expected to use the recommendations as a guide when they fashion budget-cutting legislation. The recommendations include using attrition to cut the workforce by 10 percent - about 200,000 positions - by 2015. Employees also would have to pay more for health insurance and make greater contributions to their retirement programs. Annuities would be reduced under a proposal to recalculate how payments are determined.

Said Randy Erwin, legislative director of the National Federation of Federal Employees: "I think the federal workforce is going to be forced into a very defensive posture in the 112th Congress."

No doubt.

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