Federal Diary Live

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Stephen Barr
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, April 23, 2008; 12:00 PM

The Post's Stephen Barr is the author of The Federal Diary, 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: A good day to all! Thank you taking the time to join this discussion. I'm looking forward to your questions and comments.

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Atlanta: Stephen, thanks for the article today about the TSP, even though I don't look forward to having to deal with yet another stupid password policy!

washingtonpost.com: Thrift Savings Plan's Stock Funds Take a Hit (Post, April 22)

Stephen Barr: Passwords seem to be one of those gray zones where agencies get so preoccupied with their technology and cyber-security that they forget about those of us who barely can remember our everyday passwords, much less those used only once a week or once a month. Still, keeping hackers and crooks out of the TSP is a high priority for the thrift board, so I expect you'll see them continue to search for the right balancing point on all this.

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AngryFed1: Hello, federal employees? The stock market takes a dive, and you pull out? Ever heard of dollar cost averaging? Don't you realize that your TSP contributions are now buying more shares of the stock fund? If we were allowed to add to our monthly investment, this would be the perfect time to do it.

Stephen Barr: The TSP has been designed as a long-haul investment program, and dollar cost averaging is a good philosophy. The experts all say to buy into stocks when prices are low, so gains can be made later. This advice, of course, can vary, based on your age and personal circumstances.

It would be good to see more TSP participants take a hard look at the L Funds. Last I heard, there are about 580,000 people with L Fund balances, out of a TSP membership of 3.88 million. From my perspective, these funds help you navigate toward retirement, so check 'em out, please.

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dontblamemeivoted4gore: Hey Stephen, I've got a great idea. The dollar is getting whacked so even at 3 percent interest, and we're losing our retirement savings because of inflation. Anybody want to argue, between food and transportation and medical costs, that inflation is less than 6 percent or 7 percent? We need a new TSP index fund that is pegged to the cost of oil. Then, when oil does go up, we can make money too along with the other traders.

Stephen Barr: I'm not sure that the TSP would be interested in setting up funds for commodities or sectors, such as energy. It goes against the program's philosophy of making broad parts of the markets available, rather than small chunks. But it could happen -- if Congress is willing to write the law.

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tmorgan2008: Repeal this oppressive act and direct punishment to politicians who inflict partisan politics on their civil service subordinates. A federal worker should be free to say "I hope we get a Democrat for President, so we don't have these hatchet-persons hamstringing our mission." That's the type of speech the First Amendment should permit, even at the work site.

washingtonpost.com: Election E-Mails Can End Your Term in the Office (Post, April 21)

Stephen Barr: Many federal employees tell me they like the cloak of protection that the Hatch Act provides -- it deters political appointees from enlisting them in fundraisers, evening receptions, etc. It's also important to note that the Hatch Act does not stop federal employees from debating issues in the public arena, as long as the debate steers clear of political endorsements or solicitation of campaign contributions in the workplace.

I see your point, though, and it would be useful to have Congress review the law, especially since the 1993 authors did not see the Internet revolution coming.

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RedRat: As a long-time Fed who is now retired, I can say that the Hatch Act is a good law. People here must be reminded that what and elected official does is one thing, what an employee who is hired into the executive branch is quite another. There is a big difference and this distinction should be maintained. Federal employees should be nonpartisan and not be involved actively in campaigns for one candidate or another. To remove the act and allow partisanship would bring back the old days of political patronage. Under President Jimmy Carter political appointees were increased in the federal bureaucracy, and this caused the executive branch to be a bit more responsive to the elected president -- this was Carter's idea, and has yet to be shown as a good one.

All that being said, there are problems with the Hatch Act. Your article, I think focuses on one of them. The problem is that enforcement is a hit-or-miss affair. This present administration seems to come down on anti-Bush activities while encouraging pro-Bush activities -- certainly the Doan case being one of them. Federal employees should not use their government computers for sending any kind of political e-mail, be it humorous or serious, nor should they use their position as a fed to encourage a vote for or against a candidate.

Stephen Barr: Thanks for the feedback. Enforcement does seem to be hit-or-miss, and people do see double standards when White House briefers go into agencies and talk about campaign issues and tactics. There are plenty of hotels in Washington that rent out conference rooms and would be more appropriate for political briefings.

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Washington: What is the projected impact of the current recession on federal employment? Will we see program reductions, salary freezes, etc.?

Stephen Barr: I don't know that I'm able to draw a direct link from the economic slowdown/recession to agency budgets. It is possible that tax revenue may slip in coming months, and that means Congress will have tougher choices to make when it funds agencies. A bigger issue may be the long-term federal debt and the financing problems facing Social Security and Medicare. Entitlement programs will eat into agency discretionary accounts, and the erosion will mean slower hiring, less travel and training, etc. Congress is trying to institute pay-as-you-go rules for annual appropriations, so it is very possible that many government programs and possibly staffs will shrink in the next administration. Then again, politics and human nature being what they are, nothing may be done until a real crisis howls at the door.

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TEL1: I'm a little confused about how a government worker can get in trouble by donating to a political campaign from a home computer. Isn't what someone does as a private citizen (i.e. on a nonwork computer at home, and using a personal e-mail account) none of the employer's business, assuming it's legal? How does creating a blog with a "donate" button fall into the illegal category? I've read stories in The Washington Post about Bush administration political appointees giving lunchtime seminars in federal workplaces about how to help Bush get re-elected. If that's legal, then how can a campaign activity done completely outside of the workplace be illegal? No wonder federal workers are confused.

Stephen Barr: Good points. On blogging: As I understand it, the blogging problem involves campaign Web sites. Many candidates invite readers/supporters to post comments or blog on their campaign sites, but these sites also include electronic buttons or links so that people can make campaign contributions. In the eyes of the Office of Special Counsel, that gets too near the prohibition on soliciting funds for a candidate, a Hatch Act no-no. That prohibition applies whether you are at home or in the office (although there are exceptions for union members).

Hope that helps!

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Virginia: At my Department of Defense agency, my co-workers and I were discussing the Hatch Act column. Most of us mentioned that we will vote for McCain. This angered the lone liberal. Then we pointed out to him that the liberal Democrats will cut the defense budget by 50 percent, like Clinton did from 1993 to 2000. Now he seems to be looking for another job at a domestic agency.

Stephen Barr: It will be interesting to see how the next president sets budget priorities, especially for Defense. What with equipment and troops worn down and efforts underway to increase Army enlistment, it seems that parts of the Department of Defense will receive higher budgets for the next few years. But if there are winners, there will be losers -- in and out of Defense.

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josiahSchmoe: I still am amazed that nobody has challenged the Hatch Act on Constitutional grounds. Federal agencies, at least, need to be standing up for their employees.

Stephen Barr: Because federal employees hold the public's trust and must administer programs in a fair and impartial manner, I'm not sure how a court case could be constructed to deep-six the Hatch Act. But I'm not a lawyer, and lawyers know how to find the holes in laws.

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ernestoman: When will the Office of Special Counsel get to the real work of investigation whistle blower reprisals? The office is too politically motivated and administratively moribund to do anything other than try to justify its usefulness.

Stephen Barr: OSC has its critics, both Democrats and Republicans. From my perspective, it should be a higher funding priority for the White House and Congress. But even with more staff, OSC probably would not be able to do justice to all whistle-blower cases that flow through their doors.

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darmar40: Well Mr. Barr? What is Lurita Doan's status? I think it is swept under the rug. Just like all those GOP neocons implanted throughout the federal government. And how about setting this rule for everyone in the federal government, including the Congress and White House! Yes, it would stop this phony endorsement bull and put an end to a lot of corruption. But no, they're allowed ... and they have the most influence! Thomas Jefferson is rolling in his grave!

Stephen Barr: Administrator Doan is on the job at GSA. I understand a probe continues into the issue of political briefings at her agency.

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Washington: I agree with AngryFed1. Stock markets will rise and fall, and market timing works for very few people. That's why dollar cost averaging (DCA) is a great way to invest, whether it's the TSP, your IRA, your 529 college savings plan or other investment programs. I do DCA for both my retirement plans and for my taxable investments.

Stephen Barr: I'm not a big fan of market timing either, but employees nearing retirement need to pay more attention to their accounts -- in part because they have less time to make up losses when the stock market tanks. Many of you know the importance of diversification and investments appropriate for age and risk tolerance. That's what is important.

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Atlanta: One of my colleagues wants to see the TSP add a "G subscript C fund" -- a G fund that invests in Canadian treasuries.

Stephen Barr: Thanks for that light touch!

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Springfield, Va.: Stephen, every new proposed benefit seems to split the federal workforce into those that think its a good idea and those who are mad because they can't take advantage of that new benefit. Why can't the Office of Personnel Management calculate the cost of each Benefit and come up with an "a la carte" system that lets employees choose transit passes, free parking, long-term care, heath insurance, retirement, maternity leave and what have you based on their needs, and allocate the government contribution dollars as they see fit?

Stephen Barr: Very good question, Springfield!

My guess is that advocates for the federal workforce would object, because of fears that giving each employee a lump sum or pot of money to spend on benefits would some day make it easy for Congress to reduce funding for that pot. But just a guess.

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Regarding Parental Leave:: After last weeks discussion, I want to point out that it is not reasonable to expect all benefits to be equal for all employees across time. Look at CSRS vs. FERS: Most people would say that CSRS is a better deal, and at minimum they are different. Government benefits change over time, it hardly means that someone is being discriminated against. Someone is not discriminated against because a benefit helps someone else more then them. Term life insurance is designed for and needed by those who have financial dependents. Those who have no financial dependents are not discriminated against by the fact that there is an offered benefit that doesn't matter to them as much as it does to someone else.

Finally, to all those who are angry that someone who has a child gets four weeks of "vacation" they don't get, are you aware of the process by which babies come out of the human body? Are you aware that they tend to cost around $100,000 to raise, and take up a great deal of the parent's time and energy for 18 or more years? Yes, parents choose to have them for many reasons, and the government is considering something to make it a little easier, but do you really think that the trade of serious pain and damage to a sensitive part of the body and many thousands of dollars is being undertaken by anyone in the world just to get four weeks of paid leave? I seriously think there are easier ways to get a month off work!

Stephen Barr: Thank you for the posting. As you note, CSRS gave way to FERS, and other benefits have been adjusted over time. Times change, as the saying goes, and with both parents in the workforce these days, paid leave after a birth or adoption may be appropriate.

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Apropos of nothing, a helpful hint for government applications: Hey, I was just reminiscing about how I got my first permanent government position, especially how long it took between the time I applied and when I got the job offer (almost two years -- there was a hiring freeze in there somewhere). I had forgotten about the application, and had moved on in my work life to a new position. Fortunately, my old boss took the call (as that was the work number given on my application) and provided a forwarding phone number to the hiring official. So the hint is this: On your resume, always put a phone number that is going to provide a connection to you, even two years out. I was just lucky that I had a great boss and that I had given him my new work number; 12 years later, that was just about the best phone call of my life.

Stephen Barr: A 12-year wait for the call. Amazing.

Thanks for sharing this experience.

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Bethesda, Md.: As a Fed in my early 30s with five years of service, do you know if my health and pension retirement benefits are established, so that if I leave federal service I can collect the benefits at age 65? Or do I need to be employed as a Fed at age 65 to collect the benefits upon retirement?

Stephen Barr: You would be eligible to collect a small retirement benefit, probably at age 62 with five years of service.

As for health insurance, no, you would not be able to claim that benefit in retirement. Check out the deferred retirement information.

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Cape May, N.J.: Regarding taking sick leave into retirement (FERS): How realistic is it that a future Congress will pass a bill allowing FERS employees to take sick leave into retirement?

Stephen Barr: Because this is an election year, because Congress is focused on approving a war supplemental, I'm not hopeful that the FERS sick leave bill will make progress.

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Bethesda, Md.: Okay, blogging from home may be a tougher case, but sending/forwarding campaign e-mails from your government account? That's just stupid. Open a free e-mail account with Yahoo! or the like. I just can't get upset about the consequences for people who can't figure out something so basic.

Stephen Barr: I'm not sure using a commercial e-mail account will get you entirely off the hook. The Hatch Act prohibits electioneering in federal buildings, so, under the current interpretation, it appears that the problem is being in the building.

Still, federal ethics laws stipulate that government equipment only should be used for official business, although agencies permit some limited personal use. So you are on point.

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Washington: I realize this is a little out of your area but it's been awhile, so I'm concerned that the mayor, in ads promoting Washington, wears T-shirts promoting his father's shoe store. Could a Fed get away with that? Don't think so, but what do you think? Meter that, mayor.

Stephen Barr: I don't know, but the Hatch Act bans campaign buttons and posters in the workplace. So you wouldn't catch me in a T-shirt.

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Peoria, Ill.: The Department of Homeland Security recently released its survey results on employee satisfaction, etc. Has there been any behind-the-scenes information on what DHS and the bottom agency, TSA, will do to address the lack of confidence the employees seem to have?

Stephen Barr: Headquarters says the components are supposed to work up action plans to address employee issues/morale. These issues will not be resolved quickly, something we all know.

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Washington: To the parent extolling the benefits of paid parental leave ... bear in mind that the government also pays parents to have kids by providing a yearly stipend in the form of a child tax credit of around $1,000 per kid. This is in addition to generous deductions for child care. So your complaints about the "costs" child-rearing mostly are misplaced in light of the fact that the government is picking up a large portion of the bill. And, again, it is your choice to reproduce.

Stephen Barr: Trust me, Uncle Sam is not picking up that big a share of the tab for kids. But you are correct, it is a choice, and choices lead to decisions and more choices.

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Washington: Steve: Have you or your readers heard a timeframe when folks at the National Reconnaissance Office will convert over to the NSPS? Thanks.

Stephen Barr: Not anything specific. NSPS is expanding this spring and again in the fall, if the Defense Department sticks to its latest plan.

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Re: Impact of the current recession on federal employment: I'm sure most agencies are under a hiring freeze -- I know we are. ... Not sure if that is totally attributed to the current recession or because of the political race, but either way I know we are doing "more with less" and steadily have reduced the size of my office for the past four years. I am swamped at work, but right now I'm taking my lunch time to chat with you all (thanks, Stephen, for holding your chat at noon). Enjoying the chatter and my BLT!

Stephen Barr: Thanks for those comments, and enjoy the BLT!

Paul Light and others are worried about the long-term health of the civil service. Too many offices have been shrinking, but demand for federal services keeps increasing (see lead in toys, unsafe drugs, etc.). Something has to give.

Alas, on that depressing note, I've run out of time today. Please come back at noon next Wednesday and pick up the conversation again!

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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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