Federal Diary Live

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Stephen Barr
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, January 30, 2008; 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 discuss the joys and pains of working for the federal government.

The transcript follows.

Archive: Federal Diary Live transcripts

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Stephen Barr: Thanks to all joining in this discussion today. The president's last budget comes out on Monday, so this is your chance to make some predictions -- what do you think we'll see in this budget? I look forward to your feedback!

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Mcloud, Okla.: Mr. Barr, In reference to the 1990 Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act: The act states that full comparable wages are to be paid after survey unless we are in an emergency situation or severe economic conditions. During the Clinton administration full adjustments were not granted, even though such conditions did not exist, because Clinton thought the system was "flawed."

Now, that we are in a war and spending is out the gazoo, Congress is overriding the president's recommended figure for the 2008 wage increase. To my knowledge, there has been no change to this law. Having said that, my question would be, is this not abuse of this law on both ends of the spectrum? If it is in the power of the president to limit wages solely on a whim, and in the power of Congress to disrespect the economic and war elements of this bill, what did said bill accomplish? Thanks.

Stephen Barr: Good question, Oklahoma!

As I've noted in many a column, the 1990 pay law has not been implemented fully. Pay raises, to large degree, represent a political agreement between the Congress and the White House each year. Clinton and Bush both used the escape valve to avoid the law's intent by declaring emergency conditions, such was budget deficits or the war effort.

The law was set up to reduce the "pay gap" between the federal and private sectors, but sticking to the law's timetable proved too costly for the budget-eers, I think.

Still, the pay gap is being reduced. If you accept the Labor Department calculations, about 63 percent of the gap was closed by 2006. Think what your pay would be without all those locality adjustments since 1994!

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New York: I last worked for the Department of Interior in 1992, although after I recommended a friend to a similar post I am beginning to think that a job with the federal government is not what it used to be. Am I correct, or being nostalgic?

Stephen Barr: Well, readers, help this New Yorker out -- has the government changed since 1992?

Probably. About the time you left government outsourcing picked up, and we probably have more contractors helping agencies perform their mission than ever before. Most employees are satisfied with their pay and raises, but feel that they get the nickel-and-dime treatment on everything else in the workplace. Decisions seem more top-down than in the past, I would venture, based on what people tell me.

But what do I know? Am I off-base, folks?

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Dillwyn, Va.: Federal and State taxes are being held from my CSRS retirement check. Should I expect a rebate?

Stephen Barr: Hard to know. The House has approved a $146 billion stimulus package, and a Senate proposal would provide rebates to virtually everyone, including low-income seniors. I don't think we will know what retirees can expect until Congress figures out how to structure the rebates.

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Virginia: I was talking about President Bush's speech the other day and some of my co-workers doesn't believe me when I said Democrats will cut the defense budge by 60 percent, which Clinton did. We work for the Department of Defense.

Stephen Barr: The times may not make it easy to scale back Defense spending. Clinton was trying to cash in on the post-Cold War "peace dividend," so downsizing was a fact of life at the Pentagon during the mid-'90s. But I'm not sure a Democratic president will have the option of finding budget savings in the same manner. Look for targeted cuts to certain weapons systems, perhaps, and a major rethinking of what kind of force we need for the coming century, but in my mind, simply refurbishing the Army and expanding the number of troops mandated by Congress will prevent any big budget cuts.

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Washington Fed: Hard to say what President Bush will approve/disapprove in this his final budget, but I can say -- having now received my first pay check of 2008 -- thanks, Mr. President! That increase (at least here in the Washington area) was wonderful!

Stephen Barr: Indeed -- the District was a big winner this year in the locality pay adjustment process.

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Fort Belvoir, Va.: What's your take on how the most recent NSPS payout panned out?

Stephen Barr: As an outsider, the NSPS raises seemed pretty good. The Pentagon said the average salary went up 5.9 percent -- that stacks up well against the D.C. raise of 4.49 percent and the 2.99 percent that the majority of GS employees received (those in the "rest of the U.S." locality pay area).

Still, dozens of readers have told me that these averages mask what really is going on -- that they are not keeping up with the GS because of where they fall in the pay bands, the timing of their placement in the pay bands and the loss of step increases.

I think we need a GAO analysis, frankly. NSPS won't work if too many people don't trust it.

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TSP Concerns: Hi Stephen, I work in one of the government's payroll offices and I must send this out to your chatters in hopes that they can share this info with their co-workers. The TSP allows up to 100 percent contribution and, believe it or not, employees want to elect this amount. This week I have heard from many employees who elected 99 percent of their gross income deducted for TSP, and they are confused as to where "the rest of their money is" for things like health insurance, life insurance and taxes.

A simple mathematical calculation will help all our employees determine exactly how much of a percentage of their gross pay can be sent to their TSP account in order to ensure they have ample funds to cover all other deductions. The only deduction that occurs before TSP is for retirement, so I hope your chatters will realize the importance of doing some math to ensure that they cover all bases.

Stephen Barr: Interesting. I've always been under the impression that retirement, health insurance, life insurance, etc., came out first, before the TSP deduction.

Also important to note is that under FERS, you want to make sure you can contribute at least 5 percent of salary each pay period in order to capture the matching government contributions.

But for your original question, probably your best bet is check in at the TSP and see what they say.

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Washington: Stephen, with the possibility that our February primaries might actually matter, I've been thinking about volunteering as an election judge. Does the federal government have any provisions for this with regard to its employees? Would I be required to use annual leave?

Stephen Barr: Never encountered this question before. I assume you are safe from a potential Hatch Act violation if you take annual leave and act in a nonpartisan manner in fulfilling these duties. But I would play it safe and ask the Office of Special Counsel for an advisory opinion.

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Buried in the federal budget bureaucracy: I'll make a prediction -- Congress won't actually pass a budget before Jan. 21, 2009.

Stephen Barr: It could happen -- a lame-duck president and a switch to a Democrat in the White House. That's the easy way to avoid a veto, but it plays heck at some agencies when they have their funding frozen at the start of a fiscal year.

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Re: New York's Question: I have 33 1/2 years of Federal service and I have been very blessed with my career; however, that said, I am looking forward to retirement in a few years. For new employees, whether out of high school, college or later in life with a career change, I would say it's a great place to work. That being stated, I say this coming from the standpoint of the benefits afforded to feds, especially into retirement. Starting salaries may not be equal to private sector, so if that comes into play, then by all means look elsewhere. A person looking for a job (career) needs to look in both private and federal sector, weigh all options then hope for the best. We definitely live in a much different world than 1992.

Stephen Barr: Thanks much; enjoy that retirement!

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Washington:"Has the government changed since 1992?" Not as much as the for-profit world of employment has. Since I started at the Library of Congress in 1991, everyone else has been losing their pensions and retirement health insurance. The government is a great place to retire from -- and the only employer who credits my 1968-1970 Army service toward annual leave.

Stephen Barr: Good point. Many private-sector retirees have only their 401(k) savings and Medicare.

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Arlington, Va.: Do you or anyone in the chat room really believe that GS employees received a smaller raise than NSPS employees? You wrote a column on that this past week and I find it hard to believe.

washingtonpost.com: For Many Defense Workers, a Day With Some Merit (Post, Jan. 25)

Stephen Barr: See my above posting. I'd like to know more.

Note that my column reported Defense as saying that 5,425 Level 3 employees did not receive raises as large as their GS counterparts. Levels 1 and 2 also did not keep pace. That's out of 110,000 in the NSPS.

What do we say, folks?

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San Diego: I wanted to echo what last week's Washington poster said regarding insurance changes to the out-of-pocket deductible increase from $250 to $300, and the catastrophic increase from $4,000 to $4,500 that the BlueCross BlueShield Director failed to mention. ( See transcript for Nov. 7, 2007). I agree with your comment that it is the responsibility of each person to read the fine print, but I would admit he was not totally forthcoming when asked what changes were new for 2008.

Stephen Barr: BlueCross BlueShield is the most popular FEHBP plan, as measured by enrollment, so I think that when they are asked about changes,they are most sensitive to their premium increases, which are highly publicized and a concern of many employees and retirees.

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Rockville, Md.:"The TSP allows up to 100 percent contribution and, believe it or not, employees want to elect this amount." Huh? IRS only allows you to defer $15,500 in salary during 2008. How can you elect to send 100 percent of your salary to TSP and stay below this level? In 2008, the general pay table shows a Grade 1 Step 1 worker making $17,046. You can't do more than 90.9 percent at this level (not including locality adjustment) and stay below $15,500.

Stephen Barr: Thanks for doing the math, Rockville.

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Alexandria, Va.: NSPS is playing a numbers game. Sure, many got more than the 4.5 percent in January, but because I am a GS worker I also got a step last year and am making 9.3 percent more than I made last January.

Stephen Barr: Want to trade jobs? I need a raise like that!

Now, do you get a step increase every year?

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Crystal City, Va.: If I read your column correctly, the vast majority of NSPS workers received a larger pay increase than their non NSPS counterparts. Does this mean payroll spending at the Department of Defense increased for this group? How will these above-average pay increases be sustained into the future? Did Defense anticipate payroll spending going up as a result of NSPS? How are they measuring the increased performance resulting from these pay increases?

Stephen Barr: All good questions. The Pentagon has not said it will not cut payroll spending, and I presume it will not increase except as Congress permits.

The Army is conducting an audit of the NSPS, but I doubt that they will try to link these raises to increased productivity. Past efforts to link performance pay to productivity have gone nowhere, as I understand them.

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Midwest: Do you have any sense about the competition to get state department jobs serving in Iraq for a year. I find some of the listings very interesting and it would be exciting to help establish the new government.

Stephen Barr: It is very difficult to get hired as a Foreign Service Officer. The careers page on the State Department's Web site provides an overview of the hiring process.

Serving our nation overseas is a noble calling. Best of luck!

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Washington: Hi -- I am a contractor with a federal agency. A staff position may be opening up in my department -- what should I consider before I apply? (I'm not concerned about a potential pay difference -- just any awkwardness if they chose someone else for the position. I really like working here.)

Stephen Barr: The key is to make sure you are fully qualified to hold the job. If so, then let the manager know you would like an informal meeting, where you could express your desire for the job and also assure the agency that their decision -- including the selection of someone else -- would not dim your enthusiasm as a contract employee. If you don't pick up any bad vibes, I would apply. Got to throw the hat in the ring at some point, I say.

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Manassas, Va.: Steve: No step increases every year for anyone I know. To go from step 1 to 2 would be one year. Step 2-3, 3-4, one year. But for increases between steps 5, 6 and 7 every two years and steps 7-10 every three years.

Stephen Barr: Thanks, Manassas. So this could be a see-saw situation, where some years a person might do better under the GS and in other years might do better under the NSPS?

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Step increases: My understanding is that the first three step increases are automatic. After that, each step increase must be earned, as a merit increase. At least this was how it was described to me as a GS-13.

Stephen Barr: Thanks for the feedback. Many Bush administration officials believe that all step increases are automatic, and that the GS inadequately rewards merit, and so they believe performance-based pay should be the future of the federal workforce.

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Washington: I'm not sure if this question is within your beat, but I'm so surprised I can't find more details on this news story. I heard briefly on the radio that Michael Mukasey reversed Justice Department rules that barred gay and lesbian groups from using department bulletin boards for posting notices and charged them fees when using department meeting space for events. These rules didn't apply to any other groups within the Justice Department. How can it be that such blatant discrimination can occur in our Justice Department -- and further, why didn't anyone make a bigger deal about this?

Stephen Barr: I have not followed this issue, but Sen. Russ Feingold today issued a statement thanking the attorney general for ending disparate treatment by the department of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered employees.

As I understand it, Feingold raised the issue at Mukasey's confirmation hearing. During this chat I called the Justice Department and asked for comment, but received no response.

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Stephen Barr: Once again, we've run out of time today. Thanks for all the comments, and I look forward to your help in solving the mysteries of the NSPS!

See you back here at noon next Wednesday!

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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