Federal Diary Live

Stephen Barr
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, December 12, 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 Wednesday, Dec. 12 at noon ET to explain what the fiscal 2008 budget standoff means to federal employees -- especially at the Defense Department, where 100,000 layoffs are being planned.

The transcript follows.

Archive: Federal Diary Live transcripts


Stephen Barr: Thanks to all joining in this discussion today. Congress and the White House are bogged down in a dispute that, if not resolved, could lead to furloughs for 100,000 civil service employees at the Defense Department and might lock in the president's pay plan, which would give federal employees an average 3 percent raise next year. With that, on to the questions and comments.


Falls Church, Va.: I am working at one of the defense agencies in the D.C. metro area. Based on the provided information in your article this morning, is our agency affected by this wave? Our agency supports not only the Army and Marines, but also the Air Force and Navy. Also, does this have any affect on base realignment and closure? I am truly sorry for asking you multiple questions, but I enjoy your chat. Thanks.

washingtonpost.com: Pentagon Prepares for Layoffs in Budget Standoff (Post, Dec. 12)

Stephen Barr: Pentagon officials told me yesterday that a review is underway that will identify bases and offices for a "warm freeze" or outright closure if layoffs become necessary. They said word would be sent to military commanders this week on the procedures that will be followed. In other words, I don't have much detail to share.


Richmond, Va.: Any updates on last week's column on shutting down the Army in February? The rumor here is that it only would affect OMA employees, but if they shut down the operations management people, how will the rest of us get to our offices?

Stephen Barr: See today's column for an update. I'm sure the Army is trying to figure out how to do this with the least disruption to the Iraq-Afghanistan war effort. But Army spokesmen I talked to yesterday indicated it was still too early to know how this is going to play out.


Warren, Mich.: Hi Steve. Happy holidays, everyone. More than 10 years of various personnel Demo systems, several years of NSPS trying to take all rights away and now the administration and Defense officials threaten to lay us off. Morale can't get much worse. But the Bush administration wants to reduce pay and/or fire employees on a whim. I think this proves my point of the need for good management and getting rid of politics in the workplace. Do you think we will have a happier new year?

Stephen Barr: It's worth noting that all this talk about layoffs is simply that -- we do have some politics mixed in this budget debate. The continuing resolution that is funding the government expires on Friday -- so I see that as a deadline for Congress and the White House to make some progress. So watch that date!


Rockville, Md.: My wife was very grateful for the comments on the new Defense Department pay band system. Were there any comments that came in late, or have you learned any more about its progress and/or modification? Thanks again.

washingtonpost.com: Compromise On Pentagon Pay System, Union Rights (Post, Dec. 10)

Stephen Barr: The Monday column reflects most of what I know. Once the bill gets through Congress and is signed by the president, I expect to see the Pentagon announce a new pay formula for 2008, as reflected in the bill. That's something that all federal employees should study, because if Defense makes it work, I think we might see an effort to expand such a split to the General Schedule employees.


Washington: I am curious to know what you and your readers think about this situation: I just saw that my agency posted a job on Monday that I would be interested in. The problem is that the closing date is this Friday. The prevailing wisdom seems to be that when a job is open for such a short period of time, the agency has someone targeted for the job and basically want to discourage applications. I realize that "it won't hurt to try" but am reluctant to work until midnight the next two nights putting together all of the information that the listing calls for if it is likely a waste of time. So my question is: what are the chances that a job listing open for so short a period of time has a level playing field, i.e. that there is no preferred candidate? Thanks!

Stephen Barr: There are contrary opinions about these short-lived job postings. My sense is that, if you are really interested in the job, go for it. Even if it doesn't pay off this time, it might set you up for future consideration.


Alexandria, Va.: Hi Stephen -- quick question: My father is under the old federal pension (retired in early '90s); he had a survivor's benefit for my mother, which reduced his pension amount. My mother passed early this fall -- can he revert back without the survivor's benefit now that mother is gone? Thanks.

Stephen Barr: Yes. There is no refund for past deductions, but he can go back to the unreduced amount. You'll need to contact the Office of Personnel Management or the appropriate retirement office. (202) 606-0500 is the OPM retirement line.


New Mexico: Good Afternoon: This question is for some of the personnel folks I guess. I was wondering what happens to the money one puts into the retirement system after they have reached the maximum (42) years but still are working? Do they just lose the money because they cannot exceed the 42-year mark, or is the money eventually paid back? Just wondering.

Stephen Barr: I think you'll get a lump-sum refund, when you work past the maximum. That's my understanding, but you should check with OPM, your agency personnel office, or a group like National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association.


Returning to federal service: I would like to return to work for the feds at age 60. I left my retirement in with seven years of service and figure I could work another five years with a total of 12 years of service. Is it difficult come back in the human resources field? Is the hiring process any faster and/or should I apply for jobs at age 56?

Stephen Barr: Hard to predict. I know a person who returned to HR at a federal agency after a lengthy break in service, so it can happen. But this is a field that has been downsized, and many functions that once required a human's hand have been automated. So you should expect that a job hunt may take more time than perhaps should be the case.


Alexandria, Va.: Stephen: The Defense Department big shots need to be reminded that they have a budget and continue to get supplementals seemingly every time they ask for it. The rest of fed agencies, it seems, have been operating in CR status for at least two years now and, I expect, there is no light at the end of the tunnel. In other words, DOD has it better than the rest of us, so they should stop complaining.

Stephen Barr: That's true. But with the Iraq-Afghanistan wars, the Army burns through more than $6 billion a month. That's a lot of cash, and, without another installment of emergency war funding, I don't doubt Defense officials who say they can only dip into Fiscal Year 2008 funding for so long. It's also true that the Pentagon could tell Congress it plans to shuffle money around and borrow against future appropriations, but that would be disruptive, too.


Washington: Does TSA believe feds will get a 3.5 percent pay raise, given that they're already giving it to their employees?

Stephen Barr: I guess so. TSA officers are in pay bands, and do not receive within-grade increases, etc. So TSA provides them with a cost-of-living adjustment that tries to mirror the annual GS increase. Screeners perform important work under difficult circumstances, so it is good to see this kind of pay system in place now.


Alexandria, Va.: I was checking out the draft 2008 pay tables today on the OPM Web site and noticed that they include a 2.5 percent increase (and a higher locality pay percentage). So if the 3 percent increase is approved, does that mean the draft pay tables will increase from 2.5 percent to 3 percent as well? I know it sounds like a dumb question, but I'm skeptical that we could get even more money.

Stephen Barr: If the Congress overrides the president's 3 percent raise with a 3.5 percent raise, then OPM will have to go back to the drawing board and issue new pay tables. I don't exactly know why OPM published "draft" tables, since it holds the potential to create confusion.


Budget chicken: The Social Security Administration's funding is caught up in the omnibus budget bill that is going nowhere in a big hurry in the game of chicken being played by the administration and the Congress. News sources large and small -- from the East Elbow Weekly to the AARP Bulletin to, most recently, the New York Times -- have been covering the harm that low budgets through the past six years have done to those trying to claim benefits. This year Congress looked to be about to reverse that trend; not everything SSA needs to reverse six years of neglect, but at least enough to start chipping away. But the later in the budget year the money is confirmed, the less good it will do. SSA cannot spend what it does not know for certain it will have, so the problem will continue to get worse, despite a lot of good intentions. Yesterday's New York Times editorial absolutely was correct.

washingtonpost.com: Disabled, and Waiting for Justice (New York Times, Dec. 11)

Stephen Barr: Good point. I wrote about this on Nov. 2, focus on the staffing needs for Social Security. The last I heard, the agency can only replace one of every two employees that retire or leave. Not a formula for success.


Washington: Hi Stephen. Can you provide us with a synopsis of what is going on with federal pay raises for those of us in the D.C. region on the GS scale? I thought I read an article a week ago saying that while the president had capped the locality raise, Congress likely would overrule him on it -- but now, from reading your intro, it sounds like I may have misunderstood. What exactly is going on? And what are the various scenarios? Thanks!

Stephen Barr: Basically, Congress is on track to provide federal employees with an average 3.5 percent pay raise. It has provided a 3.5 percent raise to the military, which the president accepted in the defense appropriations bill.

But the civil service raise, carried in the financial services-general government spending bill, is jammed up in the Senate. Congress is trying to cut a deal with the White House for an omnibus bill that would include non-defense spending increases, including the raise, and would provide money for the Iraq war effort. The White House rejected the linkage, and the House Democrats have yanked the offer.

Meanwhile, the defense authorization bill is needed to implement the military raise, and it should come up on the House and Senate floors this week.

The bill that is funding the government expires on Friday. If there is no deal by then, Congress will have to vote for another extension. Could be a one-week extension, to allow for more negotiations, or could be a three-month or longer extension, reflecting frustration and a desire by Congress to just get out of town and start the holidays early.

Because Congress has not acted on the pay raise, the president went ahead and authorized an average 3 percent raise for next year. He did so because the 1990 pay law would have required him to give a 12 percent locality pay raise if he did not exercise his waiver rights.

So, at this moment, the bottom line on the raise is 3 percent, on average. It may go higher, if a budget deal is hammered out.


Arlington, Va.: This furlough threat is near-repeat of the situation that played out 12 years ago, between late 1995 and early 1996. I'm not surprised that both administrations and their counterparts on the Hill still are unable to get their budget acts together.

Stephen Barr: Indeed. The '95-'96 budget impasse led to a government shutdown than ran for at least three weeks, as I recall, and agencies were sorting out pay and other issues through the spring as a result.


Beachwood, Ohio: Do we have any idea when the special pay (for those in the tech field) will be release for 2008?

Stephen Barr: I do not. The special pay tables usually come late in the month, if my memory is correct. Worth noting that agencies have to petition OPM for special pay, and fewer and fewer seem to do that these days.


Baltimore: Hello Stephen. Someone who posted last week seemed to be under the impression that if a federal employee had less than three years of service, he would forfeit all government contributions to the TSP --and their earnings. That is incorrect: only the 1 percent automatic contributions and their earnings would be forfeited, but not the other matching contributions (up to 4 percent) and their earnings. See this link.

Stephen Barr: Thanks for helping us get this straight. A good reminder for all -- check out the rules when you leave, whether it is with three years of service or 33 years of service.


Columbia, Md.: To the Washington poster regarding the short opening for a job vacancy announcement: The poster should apply if she/he feels they are qualified and can put together a strong application package. The poster still potentially can make the "Best Qualified" candidate certification list for referral to the agency and possibly garner an interview. If the candidate has some special status, such as points for military service, she/he can actually beat out the "heir apparent" as the number selected.

However, having said that, the agency/selecting official does not have to select off that certification list. The agency can choose not to select anyone, and the vacancy announcement will be closed for a specified period before the position can be announced again -- sometimes with same requirements, sometimes with the changed to narrowly fit a particular applicant. Sometimes no matter what the agency does it cannot get around another applicant who comes out the blue who is better qualified. I have in been in positions like that, and usually the agency realizes there is another applicant out there who actually is a better fir for the position -- in my case I got offered the job both times.

Stephen Barr: Thanks for sharing your insights. Good points to make.


To Alexandria, Va. (Defense vs. other agencies): I worked for six years at a non-DOD agency. It had buyouts for two years in a row and continually faced CR and budget cuts. I moved to DoD less than a year ago. I lost my career status (and went back to career conditional), I lost my GS, I can't travel to important meetings because of the budget, and now I'm about to be laid-off. I know how it is outside DOD, and while you think we may have it easier, after seeing both sides of the fence, I'm not so sure. It's not us-against-them. If they can do it to us, they can do it to you.

Stephen Barr: Well said, Alexandria.


Washington: We got Monday, Dec. 24 off. (Yeah!) Next year, Dec. 25 is a Thursday, and we've gotten the 26th off in the past (2003). I'll be the first to say it: Bush will sign that Executive Order no later than Dec. 10, 2008.

Stephen Barr: Okay, folks, you read it here first. Write down this prediction and check back in next year, please.


Fairfax, Va.: I work for a government agency, and I recently had a badge renewal. My boss took a copy of my form (which has SSN and other identifiable information). I asked for it back, as he is not supposed to have it, and he promised me he would shred it. Who would I report this to? It seems like a serious breach of privacy.

Stephen Barr: Check to see if your agency has a chief privacy officer or a security officer. If not, I would bring the matter up with your personnel office. If HR cannot help, ask them who in management has been assigned duties that involve protection and restricted use of personnel data, including Social Security numbers and other elements that add to the risk of identity theft, etc.


Washington: Merry Christmas to all the federal employees whose average salary in the District is over $90,000, from the taxpaying American family (whose median income is only $44,000). Enjoy your holiday on Dec. 24. We will be working so you can enjoy yet another day at home with pay. Please remember that because you are able to afford to celebrate and open presents, that Christmas is more than just one of your federal holidays.

washingtonpost.com: Presidential Pardon: Workers Get Christmas Eve Off (Post, Dec. 7)

Stephen Barr: Is there a Grinch in the room?

I'm not sure comparing household incomes or average incomes is where this debate ought to be. In this area many federal jobs require education, experience and special skills. That's the way the labor market operates.


Washington: Steve, what do you think about feds getting another paid holiday? I know we working taxpayers certainly don't think it is fair -- if the feds want the 24th off, let them take vacation like the rest of us.

Stephen Barr: Not sure I have an opinion. It's a tradition, going back to 1956, as best I can tell.

And I'm not able to debate the fairness of it all. Some large corporations give "personal days" to their employees, on top of vacation days, so that they can take off when they wish. We've got a very mobile, fast-moving workplace these days, and I suspect a good number of federal employees will be checking their BlackBerrys and cell phones on the 24th, just like other corporate types.

Once again, we've run out of time today. Thanks for all the comments and questions. Hope to hear from all of you next week, at noon Wednesday.


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