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Federal Diary Live
With Stephen Barr
Washington Post Staff Writer

Wednesday, May 14, 2003; Noon ET

The Post's Stephen Barr is the author of The Federal Diary, which runs Sunday through Friday in the Metro section. Steve has been a reporter and editor at The Post since 1979, including stints as Federal Page editor, congressional editor and a staff writer covering the federal bureaucracy. He takes the column live to answer your questions Wednesdays at noon ET.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Stephen Barr: Thanks to all of you for joining this discussion today. The big news is over at the Defense Department, which is pushing legislation to revamp its pay and personnel rules for civil service employees. Reps. Tom Davis and Jo Ann Davis, both Virginia Republicans, reworked the Pentagon proposal. It is now before the House Armed Services Committee. In the Senate, John Warner, also a Virginia Republican, did not take up civil service changes for Defense; the issue will probably be debated on the floor and heavily influenced by Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and George Voinovich (R-Ohio), who have an interest in federal workforce issues. Clearly, though, this is a time of change for a major segment of federal employees. On the benefits front, the Office of Personnel Management next week will kick off an open season for Flexible Spending Accounts, a benefit being offered government-wide for the first time. Meanwhile, the Thrift Savings Plan appears on schedule to launch its new record-keeping system in June, an important moment for those of you interested in daily transactions and account valuations. Now, on to the questions.

Las Cruces, N.M.: Stephen,

With regard to the DoD plan for personnel reform, if it passes, has there been any indication how it will be determined in what level (I,II,III, IV etc) pay band an employee would be placed into. In addition, within the specific level an employee is placed, there are such wide pay bands, will it be the supervisor who initially gets to decide where in that pay band an employee salary will fall? I am an intern currently on a 'fast track' to become a GS-12 and I am concerned that once I get placed into a pay band initially I might be stuck with limited chance to move into the next level.

Stephen Barr: It's too early to tell how the conversion to pay bands will work. But you can get a sense of what the Pentagon brass wants to do by reading the April 2 Federal Register (Volume 68, No. 63), starting at page 16119. The Register can be found at www.gpo.gov.

In general, it appears Defense will create five career groups, each with four pay levels. If you are placed in the "professional and administrative management" career group, GS-5 through 11 would cluster in Level 1; GS-12 and 13 in Level 2; GS-14 and 15 in Level 3, and above GS-15 in Level 4. That would seem to suggest that you've got plenty of running room to advance in your federal career. Best of luck and write back someday and let me know how it all turned out.

Falls Church, Va.: Will Flexible Spending Account limits be prorated this year at $1,500 for medical/dental and $2,500 for child care/elder care?

washingtonpost.com: House Panel Endorses Dropping Fees for Flexible Spending Accounts (Post, May 8)

Stephen Barr: The short answer is no.

The long answer is that you might want to think seriously about going to the maximum in this first plan year, since it will only cover July-December 31. You will have to be careful not to put too much money into your FSA because any unspent money at the end of the year would be forfeited.

Another factor is that some agencies might not be ready, starting in July to start making the payroll withholdings. That means that whatever amount you designate would come out of a smaller number of paychecks, meaning a bigger bite out of each. You will want to make sure that you know where your agency stands in implementing the program and whether you can afford a potential bigger bite out of your paycheck.

Washington, D.C.: Will HR 1836 make it Bush's desk? And what impact will it have on government wide civil service reform?

Stephen Barr: Hard to answer. The bill as introduced on behalf of the Pentagon has already been modified and amended by the House Government Reform Committee, particularly Tom and Jo Ann Davis. The bill has been scaled back to look more or less like the Department of Homeland Security, although with an extra waiver that will make it easier for the Pentagon to launch a pay-for-performance system. This bill, for all practical purposes, is being folded into the 2004 defense authorization act, which is where the Armed Services Committees come into play. They can change it, as can the Rules committees, and perhaps even floor debate in the Senate. Then, the House and Senate versions will have to be reconciled. That's a long way of saying that I think the Pentagon will get most of what it is seeking.

Clearly, as The Post has reported, such big changes at Defense would spill over quickly into the rest of the government. We could end up with agencies seeking their own tailor-made systems, and then a few agencies that no one really cares about, being left behind in the current system. As a reader pointed out in Monday's column, the ability of federal employees to transfer among agencies would like be impossible to do in a civil service federation. What it means for pay and performance management, I've no clue.

Dumb FSA questions: Since we feds will have FSAs for only six months of the year, wil the limits this year will be $1,500 for the health care one and $2,500 for the dependent care one?

How will reimbursements work? Do I direct my kids' dc to bill the FSA? Incidentally, this would work for only a month. My daycare costs are over $2,000 a month for two kids. The $5,000 next year will last a whopping two months and two weeks.

Stephen Barr: See the above answer to your first question. Basically, the limits will be $5,000 for child care and $3,000 for the health care account this year and, until the IRS changes the rules, for future years.

The $5,000 limit is set by the tax code and OPM cannot change it. That applies to all who have FSAs, no matter where they work. The $3,000 limit was set because that is roughly the private-sector average, although there is no limit in the tax code.

In terms of claims, OPM has not laid that out in detail. But, generally speaking, you will take the receipt from the doctor's office and use it to file for a reimbursement from your account. The claim will go to SHPS, which is the contractor running the program. Watch the Federal Diary column for details of how the program will operate.

Meanwhile, there are no dumb questions. I ask a lot of them, myself.

Falls Church, Va.: Well, I got the long awaited form from the Special Rates Settlement and wow was I surprised. It totaled about $500. I can not believe that this is correct, but if I challenge it, I get nothing for a very long time, and doubt there will be any increase. Given that this is supposed to include interest accrued over the years, I am amazed that it would seem that the calculated difference can be so low. (I was expecting based on my own calculations a number in the thousands, not hundreds.) What is your view on the likelihood of a challenge having a positive outcome?

Stephen Barr: I've heard varying degrees of disappointment from several folks who thought their back pay would be higher. I'm no expert on this appeals process. But I assume the package sent you described your job and salary grade during the period covered by the settlement. If those are listed correctly, then you're up against the formula used to calculate the back pay. To prove them wrong, you would probably have to show documents from that period. As you note, filing an appeal will delay your payout. You might reread the material on www.specialratessettlement.com to see how this process works. Or, you can Be Happy, and just blow it on a big night out....

Arlington, Va.: I know that by being over 50 and in the Civil Service Retirement System, I am eligible to toss catch-up funds into Thrift. What I can't find out is how wise is this option for me. There are a lot of places that give the details but none that seems to discuss advantages and disadvantages.

Stephen Barr: I'm not financial adviser, but here's some background to consider.

Employees 50 and older this year can make catch-up contributions up to $2,000 apart from their regular contributions. The advantages are pretty much the same as any regular TSP investment--the money comes from your salary pre-tax and the earnings are not taxed until you withdraw the money. You will be able to put it into the same TSP funds as your other investments.

The basic disadvantage is that you are tying up that money until you are eligible to withdraw it. You also have to make a decision regarding whether you want to throw more money into the stock market or keep it in the supersafe G Fund.

The form to make catch-up contributions should be available in July and the election will take effect in August.

Vienna, Va.: Could you fill us in a little on the tentative plan at Homeland Security for President Bush to be able to fire anyone at anytime? I'm not getting into the right vs. wrong of it (that is a whole other issue), but I just would like to know the facts.

Stephen Barr: There are no facts, at the moment. The department and OPM have assembled "design teams" to look at all the options. The teams will visit DHS employees in eight cities later this month and in June to get feedback. After studying and listening, the teams will send their options to a senior review committee, which will make recommendations to Tom Ridge (DHS) and Kay Coles James (OPM).

We can guess that pay banding, job performance standards and streamlined disciplinary procedures will be likely choices by Ridge and James. I expect there will be some appeal rights for persons being fired, but they may not look like the current system. Then again, they may.

We should know for sure before the end of the year.

Venice, Fla.: First I have to say that since this new civil service legislation from the Secretary of Defense is the first time he has given any attention to his civilian, I question his motives. Having said that, my question is will this change in any way affect those of us already enjoying CSRS retirement?

Stephen Barr: The proposed changes do not tamper with the retirement system or benefits.

But one proposal would allow retirees to return to Defense for up to two years at full pay and full annuity. Not bad, eh?

Fairfax, Va.: Being a federal employee in Tom Davis's district, I am more than a little upset that the congressman is leading the way to reduce civil service protections. How does he get away with this?
P.S. He's not getting my vote next year.

Stephen Barr: Clearly, I can't speak for the congressman. But Tom Davis appeared on a track to take up civil service reform over a two-year period. When the Bush administration decided to push for changes at Defense, Davis decided he would rather help drive the train rather than get run over. Some of his amendments took away "sole" unreviewable authority sought by Rumsfeld; other amendments called for fairness in setting up performance management systems. So I'm not sure this legislation is what Davis would have produced if left alone. Clearly, though, it is big change and federal unions see it as one more Republican effort to strip them of influence in the workplace.

Arlington, Va.: One thing that might inhibit quick changes in agency personnel systems is that very few have personnel computer systems that they control. I'm told that even something as seemingly simple as giving the retroactive pay increase is cumbersome because of the amount of programming necessary to figure out how much each employee is owed. When you think of pay banding and special salary tables, the complexity is enormous and would take years to implement.

Stephen Barr: A very good point. Employees told me this week that they are finally seeing the 1 percent back pay raise show up in their pay checks--almost six weeks after it was granted. For the most part, these pay experiments have worked in relatively small demonstration projects. I have no idea how difficult pay-for-performance might be when you scale it up to 746,000 employees at Defense and about 200,000 at Homeland Security. But I have this vision of thousands of supervisors and managers spending about two weeks each year doing nothing but paperwork justifying pay raises.

Washington, D.C.: Stephen, I understand TSA is now "right-sizing" its screener positions but do you know whether this action will also mean reductions in the amount of administrative and support staff with TSA, i.e. TSA headquarters.

Stephen Barr: Well, this right-sizing is being driven by members of Congress who can't stand the thought that they've created a large bureaucracy. There's been no talk of downsizing the headquarters staff, but it seems logical they will reexamine those staffing levels as part of their budget review. Adm. Loy hopes to get TSA in a stable budget environment by FY 2005. He has a number of employees who are temporary appointments (part-timers) and a cadre of contractors providing typical HQ services, like personnel. I suspect all of this will be up for review down the road. But, for the moment, screeners and technology upgrades are Loy's primary focus.

Parental Leave: I checked out your link to the May 8 column above, and though Parental Leave would come too late for me (we are through having kids and I now am struggling with extremely low leave balances -- I have two hours of sick time right now and took only 2 months off total (including a month of LWOP) for this last baby), I don't believe for a second that this Congress will support any paid parental leave. I think pigs will fly before then. I hope I'm wrong, though, for the sake of others starting their families and working for the feds.

Stephen Barr: I fear you are right. Federal friendly lawmakers support this change, but OPM doesn't get it.

Arlington, Va.: You have reported that Rep. Maloney has re-submitted a bill to give federal employees six weeks of paid paternity leave. Now that she has some influential co-sponsors, how fast do you think we'll know if the bill has a chance of passing?

Stephen Barr: Her best bet may be to find a bill that must be approved by Congress, and I think Reps. Davis and Hoyer will help her if a suitable vehicle can be found. Such as an appropriations bill. But they've got to get OPM and OMB to look the other way when they do it, and that may be difficult to sell. OPM thinks the current benefits package is generous and serves employee needs.

Somewhere, USA: I see that Chief Moose is suing to be able to peddle his sniper book, charging that the ethics commission's decision to block the deal violates the First Amendment (it's not about the money, of course). If he succeeds in the suit, would federal employees also be able to sell books about their work while they are still employed by the government?

Stephen Barr: Interesting question. As I read the guidelines published by the Office of Government Ethics, federal employees work under different laws and cannot be paid if they write, teach or speak on anything related to their official duties. Some agencies, such as the CIA, have post-employment restrictions on what can be written. So, don't plan on getting rich anytime soon!

Re: Special Rates: Thanks for the link. I had a quick look at it, and because it would take me awhile to get through all the legal docs, I wondered if you could enlighten me as to how the dates on the form were chosen. I was a special rates employee from 10/88 -- 11/89, but I am getting money only for 1988.

I'm sending in the forms anyway, since I had completely forgotten that I had a special rate in my former fed life. And yes, my colleagues are all puzzled by how the final totals were determined.

Stephen Barr: The dates grow out of the dispute over special rate pay practices. The Reagan administration changed the rules and snared in the government in a long-running legal battle with the National Treasury Employees Union. I think 1988 was the last year the policy was in effect. So if you were covered for only one year, the difference in your pay could be slight. Best of luck!

Stephen Barr: Once again, we've run out of time for today's discussion. Thanks for participating, and thanks to all of you who take time to read this transcript. We'll see you here at noon next Wednesday.

© Copyright 2003 The Washington Post Company