Federal Diary Live

Stephen Barr
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, December 19, 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: My apologies for being tardy today. I've been in a meeting at the Thrift Savings Plan, on possible restrictions to curb frequent trading by participants. Thank you for your patience, and we'll move to the questions and comments now.


Washington: I'd love to hear from chatters about their federal office's holiday parties. Because federal workers have to finance their own, ours end up being cheap affairs in the freezing conference room. A nice added touch to ours is the skits put on by staff that are intended to poke fun at other staff, but sometimes insult them, and then the managers get up and read their notes on who said or did the dumbest things last year. Needless to say, as a normal person, I absolutely dread going.

Stephen Barr: Okay, folks, if you hold a view on holiday parties, this is your chance to sound off. A friendly roast can be lots of fun, but it seems they always leave some feeling uncomfortable. I often find one of the toughest things is to make small talk -- some people have a gift for it and some of us don't.


Washington: What if any changes did the Omnibus bill make to federal workers' pay raise for 2008?

Stephen Barr: It would provide a 3.5 percent raise, on average; that is slightly higher than the 3 percent proposed by the president. Separate bills would provide a 3.5 percent raise to the military, too.

So the pay system should operate much as it has in past years, assuming that the president does not veto the entire package of consolidated appropriations bills.

The bill also stipulates that unionized workers at the Defense Department also are eligible for the 3.5 percent raise. I read that as an expression of concern about the roll out of the new National Security Personnel System. As a practical matter, this provision will not change Pentagon plans, because the intent is not to cover union employees in the near future.


Washington: The Omnibus bill that passed the Senate is attached to the State Department appropriations bill. What does that mean for the conference reports from other appropriations bills that were rolled in? Do they survive, or do they die on the vine if the bills they are attached to do not pass? (Of course, the interest is what happens to the directions of agencies that were covered in those reports...)

Stephen Barr: As I understand it, agencies are free to ignore conference reports that accompany appropriations bills, because they are bound only by the letter of the law in those bills. But agencies that ignore conference reports only hurt their long-term interests, so I suspect that this year's reports will be honored by agencies.


Arlington, Va.: Do you have any insight to whether the budgets are going to be set up and legislated to avoid any closing of the government ?

Stephen Barr: Going into this morning, it appears that the president will get what he wants from the year-end legislation, and that the government will not shut down. If the budget deal unravels, then Congress would step in and approve an interim funding measure to keep agencies operating. By all accounts, Congress and the White House would like to wrap up the spending issues by Friday.


Washington: What are the chances of the 3.5 percent raise for federal employees being approved in the Omnibus bill?

Stephen Barr: Pretty good, I think. The president has objected to the 3.5 percent raise but has not lodged a veto threat on that issue.


Washington: Re: Your October 31 column about an incentive for FERS employees to accrue sick leave: The article mentions that Rep. Jim Moran "would like to have a bill ready by late November"; please give an update on this proposal. Thanks.

washingtonpost.com: Use It and Abuse It (Post, Oct. 31)

Stephen Barr: I have not had an update from the Moran staff, so I'm inclined to think that they still are talking with the administration on how to structure the bill and hold down long-term costs.


St Louis: The people who run TSP are idiots. They cap your contributions at $15,500, but instead of letting an employee simply select a max amount like that, instead they make you figure out how much per pay period should be withheld. Well, this year's a fluke, in that there are 27 pay periods instead of 26 -- thus we're "off" by a pay period i.e. kicking in one additional contribution that won't be matched. Now, I'm not going to begrudge one "missing" matching contribution, but why can't TSP simply let us enter a block amount and then have them do the math? Idiots.

Stephen Barr: There are more moving parts here than you might think. The IRS sets the cap on contributions, as part of its implementation of the tax laws. The TSP also does not control payroll offices at agencies; it only receives your contribution and has no knowledge of your salary level. So we have a system where computers don't talk to each other and probably never will. And, as you point out, it doesn't help things that federal pay periods don't always align with the weeks in a calendar year.


Washington: Will the Omnibus bill, if passed as drafted, negate the potential for Defense Department furloughs?

washingtonpost.com: Lawmakers Urge the Pentagon to Delay Furloughs (Post, Dec. 13)

Stephen Barr: Perhaps. The Senate last night added $70 billion sought by the president for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. I'm not budget expert, but I think that should be enough to avert furloughs at Defense.


Kingstowne, Va.: So, do tell about the TSP meeting. I thought I recalled a discussion about this a month or so ago in this forum. There were some good ideas about not limiting the number of trades but instead allowing a few per period free, but charging the individuals exceeding that number.

Stephen Barr: The TSP executive director and key aides met with the TSP's Employee Thrift Advisory Committee, whose members are drawn from federal and postal unions and management associations.

The TSP staff outlined its views on the damage being done to the plan by frequent traders, who are engaging in large-dollar trades several times a month, a practice that drives up trading costs in each fund. The staff has proposed limiting TSP members to two trades a month, with a waiver to flee to the G Fund if the member feels he or she has made an investment mistake with the second trade.

The union representatives basically were split on what to do, and did not make a formal recommendation to the TSP staff. Lots of questions about possible alternatives, etc.

I plan to write on this topic for the Thursday column, so look for details there.


Stephen Barr: Let me break in here to bounce us back to last week's discussion. The president had announced his plan for a 3 percent pay raise, and I suggested that OPM's decision to post draft pay tables on the Web could confuse employees and might not be prudent, because Congress appeared on track to authorize a larger raise. That comment did not go over well at OPM, which pointed out that the agency is bound by law and executive order when it comes to pay matters.

The following is the OPM explanation for posting draft pay tables:

OPM posted draft January 2008 pay tables on its Web site on November 30, 2007. The pay tables reflect an overall average pay adjustment of 3.0 percent.

As a result of an alternative pay plan by the president, and under current law, the 2008 pay tables will become effective on January 6, 2008, if no further action is taken by Congress to change the amount of the overall average pay adjustment (e.g., to 3.5 percent).

OPM posts the draft pay tables to help payroll providers and agency HR systems prepare for the January 2008 pay adjustments. OPM has done the same thing in the past.

We anticipate the president will issue an executive order later this year to implement the draft 2008 pay tables. We will issue a separate memorandum confirming the final 2008 salary tables after the President signs the executive order.

OPM cannot predict whether Congress and the president will ultimately approve an adjustment of other than 3.0 percent for January 2008.

Posting draft tables has happened in the past.

-- Last year we published draft January 2007 salary tables as a result of the president's alternative plan.

-- On March 4, 2004, we issued final pay tables to implement a retroactive pay increase averaging 4.1 percent above the January 2003 rates. This retroactive adjustment superseded the 2.0 percent overall average increase approved by the president on December 30, 2003.

My thanks to OPM for providing the above information!


DoD land: Can you or someone here refresh my memory on the coworker gift regs? After six Christmases at one agency, I switched to a new one (in DoD). Now coworkers keep handing me Christmas gifts. I feel very awkward.

Stephen Barr: Any advice for this person?


Herndon, Va.: Party comment -- this is called "you can't win." If you do have some skits, somebody always will be offended, and if you have none, others complain there's no "party" there. It would be interesting to see what the "culture" of the various departments is -- at some alcohol is a total no-no, at others, beer and wine are okay, and at a very few (I'm not sure where) mixed drinks are not unknown. The latter, of course, have the best skits (at least until word gets out the next day about what was said).

Stephen Barr: Thanks, Herndon! We need a historian to trace the roots of the "office party" for us.


Holiday Parties: Part of the fun is the dread in going and being able to complain about how bad they are. It's also fun to compare parties with non-fed friends: booze cruises on the Potomac for them, bring my own cookies to the conference room and then back to work for me -- although BYO cookies is better than when we have to pay to attend our own parties in the conference room, as has happened in years past.

Stephen Barr: Good point. There is fun in complaining about office parties. I tend to favor the potluck party, where everyone attending has to bring something. Bringing in cookies, even if not baked at home, seems less a burden that opening up your wallet, I agree.


Skits?!: Skits at the office holiday party? Man, that is cringe-inducing, worthy of an episode of "The Office." I'd rather have no party.

Stephen Barr: Oh, come on now. It's much better than watching Reality TV shows...


Washington: "Well, this year's a fluke, in that there are 27 pay periods instead of 26 -- thus we're "off" by a pay period." 2007 isn't a fluke -- but 2008 is a fluke if you are paid through NFC. In NFC, the tax-year pay periods went PP 25 of previous year through PP 24 of current year. The 27th pay period for 2008 would have been the first official pay period for 2009 (paid on Jan. 1, 2009), but being a Federal holiday it is now in December 2008. So 2008 will be PP 25 - PP 25. From 2009 through 2012, it will be PP 26 - PP 25. However, in 2012, there will be 27 pay periods for leave, so 2013 will be PP 26 (of 2012) through PP 24 (26 pay periods because there's a PP 27) and we're back to PP 25 - PP 25.

Stephen Barr: I rest my case. Thanks, Washington.


Arlington, Va.: Steve, Earlier this month Treasury whispered (announced is not the right word for this stealth change) that starting next year Savings Bond purchases would be limited to $20,000 a year ($5,000 each for EE and I series, paper and electronic purchases). Supposedly this will affect only two percent of bond purchasers. Federal employees are, I suspect, among the most active buyers of U.S. Savings Bonds. Any idea if government workers will be disproportionately affected by the new rules?

Stephen Barr: I am not up to speed on this, so cannot comment. My hunch is that most employees steer the bulk of their savings into the TSP, and so would not be concerned about savings bonds. Any views out there on this?


Alcohol at holiday parties: I'm pretty sure it's forbidden in most agencies these days. It certainly is at Defense. But the best part of our holiday party is talking to the older staffers about what parties at DoD used to be like -- margarita machines and antics that should have led to DUIs and divorces.

Stephen Barr: Thanks for the posting.


Female employees: Yeah, and after these well-thought-out potlucks, guess who cleans up!

Stephen Barr: Okay, guys, do your part this year!


TSP contributions -- a tip: Just be a little conservative and take $15,500 divided by 26, which is $596 per pay period.

Stephen Barr: Thanks for doing the math!


Washington: Can retired political appointees or retired civil servant have blogs like Doug Feith's? Will this be part of the post-conflict of interest?

Stephen Barr: I can understand why an employer might want to discourage or place limits on blogging by current employees, but haven't thought about retirees. Isn't technology great?


Winchester, Va.: Hi Stephen. When the president declares that Christmas Eve is a holiday, do Federal workers have to use their vacation time? If not, this decision by the president costs the taxpayers millions of dollars. Why not let the federal workers use their allotted vacation time, as they already get a ton of holidays as well as vacation days. The private sector only wishes they had it this good when it comes to time off. Merry Christmas.

Stephen Barr: I suspect most employees take the Eve as a vacation day, although some who have "lose or use" leave that cannot be rescheduled may have to forfeit their time.

I'm not sure you can generalize about the private sector. Yes, many companies are open on the Eve; many others close early or for the day. I think the larger issue involves productivity -- not much is going to happen on that Monday, so I'm not sure there is a great harm here. It's also important to remember that thousands of federal employees will be working -- those deemed essential for the day by their agency.


Rockville, Md.: Last week, this comment was posted "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." I would like to point out that most people would have taken Monday off as a vacation day. My eight-person section had six people taking off. I assume that rate was similar throughout the agency. However, if 25 percent of the people show up for work, the agency has to pay for 100 percent of the electricity, pay for 100 percent of the heating costs, pay for 100 percent of the contractor support staff.

All of this when most people aren't around, meetings can't be held and work is significantly limited. As a result, closing the agency is better. And note that some of us will be logging on to make sure systems are running and e-mails are answered, etc. And we are also taxpayers.

Stephen Barr: Good point, Rockville. Happy holidays!


Washington: Any chance we'll get New Years Eve off?

Stephen Barr: Doubtful. I've never seen a presidential order for New Year's Eve. No doubt many offices will close up shop early that day, and that many people will ring in the New Year still on vacation. Best to you in 2008!

A reminder that the Diary is on holiday break next week, so please rejoin this discussion at noon Jan. 2.

Happy Holidays to all!


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