Federal Diary Live

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Stephen Barr
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, November 28, 2007; 12:00 PM

The Post's Stephen Barr writes the Federal Diary column, which runs Monday through Friday in the Business news section. Steve has been a reporter and editor at The Post since 1979, including stints as Federal Page editor, congressional editor and a National staff writer covering federal management and workplace issues. He began writing the column in May 2000, and takes the column live to answer your questions Wednesdays at noon ET.

The transcript follows.

Archive: Federal Diary Live transcripts

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Stephen Barr: Thanks to all joining in this discussion today! I hope you enjoyed the series on the 2008 federal employees health benefits open season. We'll finish out the year with free-for-all sessions, touching on any topic of interest to you. So don't hesitate to log in with your comments!

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Washington: I think most federal employees want to know what the pay situation will be in January. If agencies are still on continuing resolutions, we hear there will be no raises. If raises are put into effect later in the year, will they be retroactive to the beginning of the year? The holidays are upon us and we need to know!

washingtonpost.com: Deadline Looms Over Pay-Raise Deadlock (Post, Nov. 27)

Stephen Barr: We'll know more by week's end, because the president faces a statutory deadline to set locality pay for 2008. My guess is he will provide a 2.5 percent base pay increase and a 0.5 percent locality pay increase, for 3 percent total. Congress has the option to stick with its plan and put a 3.5 percent raise into law, but the budget impasse and the CRs suggest the whole issue could slide over into next year. If that happens, the Bush pay raise would be in effect, starting in January.

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Federal Triangle, D.C.: Any update on the chances of a government shutdown? When would it start if it happened?

Stephen Barr: The interim funding bill, or continuing resolution, expires on Dec. 14. If Congress and the White House have not reached a budget deal by then, the government will probably be put on another CR. It might be short, say until Dec. 21, or it could be longer, into February or March. Just no way to know, at the moment.

But I don't think either side wants to risk a government shutdown. That would not be nice, especially with presidential primaries around the corner.

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Atlanta: Stephen, thank you for your Nov. 20 column about the TSP instituting trading restrictions. I have been doing two or three small transfers a month myself, so the two trades per month will be a minor inconvenience me. It certainly will hurt the market-timers cited in the column. If the problem was with the I-fund, why not just limit transfers in and out of the I-fund?

washingtonpost.com: Thrift Savings Plan Approves Trading Restrictions (Post, Nov. 20)

Stephen Barr: Good question. The highest trading costs involve the I Fund, but trades in other funds have jumped sharply in the last two years. Enforcing a limit on trading means reprogramming the TSP computers, and I suspect that a blanket approach is the least expensive and easiest to accomplish.

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Washington: Hello Stephen. Any word on the federal government cost of living increase?

Stephen Barr: If, by COLA, you mean the pay raise, see my responses to previous questions. If you are asking about retirees, most will receive a 2.3 percent cost-of-living adjustment in their January checks. The retiree COLA is not impacted by the budget holdup.

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Washington: So we were in line, according to OPM, for an increase of 4.49 percent in the D.C. area -- but because Congress cannot do it's job we will be lucky to get 3 percent, is this correct? I think Congress should be on a pay for performance plan as well -- a few decades of no pay raises and, just maybe, they might start doing their jobs.

Stephen Barr: Federal employees, and many, many federal programs, are essentially in limbo until Congress and the White House reach a budget deal. It's worth remembering that Congress, when it does not act on time, usually ensures that pay raises are retroactive to the first of the year.

Because the locality pay formula is tilted toward high-wage cities, D.C. area federal employees should see more than 3 percent in their paychecks.

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Arlington, Va.: I'm a former GS-15 who is now a "YA-3" under NSPS. Not very impressive when you consider I started out as a GS-2: one level increase in over 30 years! I foresee unintended consequences from NSPS's total focus on salary as a yardstick for one's sense of accomplishment and self-image. Money isn't everything; there is some pride at having advanced through the grades, much as my military colleagues advance through the ranks. An NSPS-like system for the military would abolish all ranks in favor of an "enlisted" pay band and an "officer" pay band and a total focus on money to differentiate individuals within each "pay band." How demoralizing would that be? Comments?

Stephen Barr: Thanks for the feedback! Compensation experts and some federal HR officials assume that linking pay to job performance ratings will, over time, ramp up the overall performance of a department. But, as you point out, many people in government work to accomplish the mission, and don't expect to have to spend time thinking about pay bands and how raises are allocated.

Any other thoughts out there on this?

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Virginia: Hi Stephen. Any thoughts on whether feds will be given Dec. 24 as a holiday? I know, gutsy to bring that up in the face of all the other budget issues, but I've heard that it is actually more expensive to open for business when it's one day sandwiched in between a weekend and a holiday.

Stephen Barr: No decision has been made, but OPM is aware that folks would like an extra day off. It could be a hard sell this year, what with the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I think you are basically on point -- what with kids out of school, etc., most families will opt for a long weekend, either for travel to relatives or for shopping and recreation. There will be a productivity slow down, so it's mostly a matter of how you write it off on the books--a vacation day or a federal day off.

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Clifton, Va.: But those of us under NSPS get the shaft with the budget impasse and the pay raise. We were told that we would maintain parity with our agencies, but with the impasse and the fact that pay-pool doings are just about complete, we are going to lose ground in regard to our comrades in the rest of the federal government. Plus my agency is going back mandatory overtime after the holidays because our director put his foot in his mouth when he ran it off to GAO. I am looking for employment outside of the Department of Defense.

Stephen Barr: Before jumping ship, I would wait to see how Defense handles the first round of payouts under NSPS. My hunch is that most employees will end up as well off as they would have under the GS. Hopefully, the Pentagon will be transparent on this topic, since I think it could reassure people about the NSPS.

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December 24 Holiday: The last chance that President Bush had to deal with the extra day was in 2001, certainly a year he could have ignored it, and it he declared it a federal holiday. One can hope that he will be consistent.

Stephen Barr: Good memory! Thanks!

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Re: 24 Dec.: If it were that big an issue to open up offices for one day between a holiday and a weekend, we would always be given the Friday after Thanksgiving off. I don't see it happening for Christmas Eve.

Stephen Barr: Something to ponder. Thanks.

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Land Of NSPS: NSPS is sold as an attempt to identify and reward the most productive employees. It's goal is to give the agency a chance to pay those who "leap tall buildings in a single bound".

But NSPS is also creating a "one size fits all" mentality. Employees are given general performance goals and all are expected to achieve those same goals. Some of those goals are not taking into account different skills needed to perform the work. So NSPS ends up with managers not being able to appraise employees differently. Doesn't that seem to contradict the goal of rewards based on ability and contributions ?

Stephen Barr: An important point. As an outsider, I see the NSPS as a true test of managers. If they do this correctly, it creates a new level of responsibility to shoulder. If you are doing a good/great job, the managers have to figure out how to reward you. If you and your buddies are drones or slugs, then managers will have to answer to superiors on why they have so many poor performers in their unit.

Feedback that is vague, or goal setting that fits all, probably won't meet the spirit of the NSPS.

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Baltimore: Did you hear about the Department of Defense's proposal to take due process and appeal actions away from the Navy, Army, Air Force and Washington Headquarters Service Central Adjudication Facilities (CAF) and let the Defense Office of Hearing and Appeals write the statement of reasons and handle the due process, with an administrative judge hearing the case and a department counsel from the Office of the Secretary of Defense prosecuting?

Currently Defense Office of Hearings and Appeals handles due process for Defense contractors and it takes nine months to a year for them to complete due process. The above CAFS take maybe 120 days on average. It also makes the due process more adversarial than when a personnel security specialist at the CAF handled your case. As a military member or DOD civilian employee, hiring an attorney will be almost mandatory to ensure you are treated fairly. And for military members, JAG will not help.

Stephen Barr: News to me. Thanks for surfacing this issue.

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Fairfax, Va.: What is your take on the political/management mess that GSA has become? Will Lurita Doan and her administration stay through the end of the Bush administration?

Stephen Barr: It is most unfortunate for GSA employees. Unless new information is uncovered in the Hatch Act probe, my sense is that Administrator Doan will not be leaving her post.

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Soon to be former fed: Mr. Barr, I've accepted employment outside the government. What are my options regarding the retirement I've accumulated so far? I will have been federally employed for 1.5 years when I leave at the GS-9 level. There is confusing and apparently contradictory information about what I can and can't do. I'd appreciate any clarification on what choices lie ahead. Thanks.

Stephen Barr: If you think you might return to the government some day, you might want to leave your retirement contributions in FERS and not take them with you. If you pull out of FERS, you cannot make a redeposit on your return to federal service.

Probably the only other big topic to consider is what to do with your TSP account. You can leave that in place, or roll it over to an IRA or 401(k). The G Fund is pretty sweet, and not available in the private sector, so you might factor that into your thinking.

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Fort Washington, Md.: I am retired under CSRS and enrolled enrolled FEHBP. I am over age 65. I also am enrolled in Medicare Part B and enrolled in Tricare for Life through my husband's military retirement. Question: If I suspend my FEHBP, are there any restrictions on my reinstating FEHBP in the future? Thanks for your response.

Stephen Barr: In your case, FEHBP and Tricare are supplements to your Medicare coverage. And Tricare probably does not cost as much. In 2001, Congress changed the rules to permit current FEHBP annuitants and former spouses to suspend, rather than cancel, their FEHBP coverage and premium payments in order to use Tricare for Life. You can re-enroll in FEHBP in a future open season if Tricare does not meet your needs.

Having said that, don't take it as the gospel. I would check with OPM and with a military retiree association to make sure you can easily move back and forth. FEHBP coverage is a valuable thing to have, so make sure you understand all the rules before changing health care systems. Best of luck!

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Alexandria, Va.: Some federal employees are caught in this mortgage debacle and need funds to keep their homes even though the adjustable-rate mortgages will reset. Would using your TSP funds under financial hardship request be a good way to get the needed funds.

Stephen Barr: I've not asked TSP about this, but, in general, I think you could make a financial hardship case and withdraw money without facing the extra tax penalty. There is an area where you need to call ahead and make sure you know the rules. I'd also ask if taking out a loan against your account might provide an alternative solution.

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Frederick, Md.: I want to revise my TSP deductions and catch-up contributions for 2008. When is the best time in December to do that so that I can come as close as possible to the contribution ceilings? Thanks.

Stephen Barr: Your payroll office probably is the only place to get that answer. We're down to the last few pay periods of the year, so you'll need their help on this. Best of luck!

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Baltimore: Re: TSP to the soon to be former fed, I don't think you're fully 'vested' in the TSP until you've had three years of service. So it's possible you may not be able to roll all of it over...

Stephen Barr: Good point, Baltimore. There probably is different treatment here when it comes to agency contributions vs your own payroll deductions.

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Washington: Mr. "GS-15 now a YA-2" sounds like my 55-year-old father-in-law who is proud of the same achievement. Of course, he's been with the government for more than 25 years and is also one foot out the door in terms of being ready to retire.

Me, I'm a GS-12 -- now a ZA-III under our agency's Demo project. I started two years ago with my graduate degree as a GS-9 and find that I couldn't care less about my "grade," as I find it has little to nothing to do with the amount of respect or level of responsibility I get as part of my job. I do care about being paid enough to live in an expensive part of the country to do work that I care about and being rewarded for my skills and abilities such that I am not easily tempted by the private sector.

I think that the progressing through the scale is the mindset of people who expect to spend 20-plus years working for the government as their whole career, not the younger generations who are going to replace them. Pay for performance is going to be a "must" for attracting the next generation of civil servants. The younger generation has no intention of sticking around for the length of time it traditionally took to move through those grades.

Stephen Barr: Thanks for making those points! An important addition to this discussion.

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Washington: I think one thing people have to keep in mind is that, even if Congress does enact the 3.5 percent raise (which, depending on how they do locality adjustments, could mean about 4.5 percent in Washington), most likely they wouldn't increase agency budgets to pay for that change. As a result, something else would have to give to pay for it. As they say, nothing's free.

Stephen Barr: Well said, Washington. Most agencies will have to take the pay raise out of hide, and that means not filling empty jobs and cutting back on travel and overhead. Alas.

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Washington: Stephen, federal payroll offices still refer to the January pay raise as a cost-of-living adjustment. If you look on the SF-52 there it is in black and white. No wonder federally employees are think that their January pay raise is a COLA. As you have pointed out many, many times, COLAs only apply to retirees -- and the January pay raise is just that, a pay raise.

If our employees are confused, how can you the blame the employees?

Stephen Barr: Sigh. Thanks for pointing that out.

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Washington: Does anyone have a sense on overall federal government hiring? It appears to have ground to a halt with fewer and fewer USAJOBS postings and longer review times for agencies. I have been in the final three applicants for so many agencies I have lost count. After the "final three" I never hear anything. I have decided to go to the private sector. Is it possible that this is because of the lack of appropriations?

Stephen Barr: A good guess, I think. Most agencies did not get their budgets on Oct. 1, and we soon will be nearing the halfway mark of a fiscal year, so I think agencies are playing it safe and will defer some hiring until a budget resolution is reached.

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Arlington, Va.: Where can a student find information about summer jobs in the Federal government?

Stephen Barr: Most agencies have a "careers" Web page that includes information for students. Unfortunately, the deadline for many summer internships and jobs require early applications, usually around Nov. 1.

I also would check out the Partnership for Public Service Web site; it includes a directory to student jobs and lots of good advice for young job hunters.

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NSPS again: How does NSPS work when managers don't document things properly? It's hard to prove a manager is incompetent when things disappear.

Stephen Barr: Sounds like a question for the manager's boss. NSPS is supposed to include a couple of level of reviews on pay decisions, so I would hope that bad managers get the nudge to take all this seriously.

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HSA in FSAFED: Here's the conversation at our house (two married feds in their 40s with one child): "Honey, it's open season again and we should put some money in the HSA." "Yes, but the minimum is $250 and there's no rollover, so it's use it or lose it." "Right, let's just do the dependent care then."

If the FSAFED HSA is ever allowed to roll over (and be invested in a mutual fund while it's sitting there -- similar to private plans) I'd max it out, let it grow and then use it to cover my health needs during retirement (or for unexpected health catastrophe)...

Any chance this could happen? Happy to send a letter to Congress.

Stephen Barr: I don't see any movement to change the use-it-or-lose-it rule for flexible spending accounts, but you might want to do the math on a high-deductible plan with a health savings account, because you own that money and can roll it over from year to year. Assuming you are healthy, a couple of good years with an HSA might pay off down the road for you.

Once again, we've run out of time today. Thanks for all the questions and comments. We'll see you back here at noon next Wednesday!

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