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Federal Diary
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Federal Diary Live
With Stephen Barr
Washington Post Staff Writer

Wednesday, June 18, 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.

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 who are signing on to this discussion today. This has proved to be a big week, in some respects.

The Thrift Savings Plan launched its new record-keeping system, which allows participants to conduct daily transactions and see their account values expressed on a price-per-share basis. Many of you have written to let me know that access to the TSP Web site is slow. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

Federal employees also will pick up another valuable benefit on July 1, when the program providing flexible spending accounts begins.

On another front, the Pentagon keeps marching forward on its legislation to overhaul the pay and personnel rules for Defense civil service employees. It's a change that will likely ripple through the federal workforce in coming years. Separately, the Office of Personnel Management published government-wide rules to permit an alternative hiring method and to make it easier for agencies to offer early out retirements. With that, on to the questions.


Washington, D.C.: You are much too nice to the TSP. They clearly weren't ready for all the hits they got on the new system.

washingtonpost.com: Thrift Savings Plan Inaugurates Long-Awaited Record-Keeping System (Post, June 16)

Stephen Barr: Actually, TSP officials said they had added extra capacity for the Monday launch of the new computer system, but encountered two glitches. One could happen at any time--a router went down, slowing the transfer of information from one network to another. The second involved a piece of software that did not respond as planned--the component had been put through "stress tests" and no problem turned up. Clearly, though, a system with 3 million participants probably takes a big hit when it goes live. Many, many of you have written to me complaining about your inability to get access to your account. I guess patience is the watchword.


Arlington, Va.: It's nice that TSP finally got their new computer system operating. It's unfortunate that thing is so painfully slow and bogged down that it is impossible to actually use. Are they planning to add some computer capacity so that people can actually use the system?

Stephen Barr: I don't know if they will add capacity. As I mentioned above, TSP officials had configured the system to take a heavy load. But they launched on a Monday when the stock market was going gang-busters, so that probably inspired more investors than usual to order a transaction or just check out their rising account balance.


Arlington, Va.: The TSP is supposed to allow employees 50 and over to make additional contributions starting -- $1K this year and increasing to $5K in five years. I'm 53 and would like to maximize my contributions the next two years before retirement. Why shouldn't I be able to contribute $4K and $5K my last two years?

Stephen Barr: The limits are set by tax law. It was a provision of the 2001 tax reform act that allows "catch up" contributions. A separate law had to be passed last year to let the TSP take advantage of this provision. TSP says it will make the needed form available in July, and payroll withholdings for catch-up contributions can start in August. The limit is $2,000 for calendar year 2003, and $3,000 for CY 2004. So you could put in the $5,000 you want before retiring. Best of luck!


Memphis, Tenn.: I have been unable to access the new TSP system. Even trying several times a day. This morning, there was a message that the system may be slow, therefore, phone the system for balances and changes. Tried that, and guess what! No access there either. Is this typical? Have others had the same problem?

Stephen Barr: Yes, I've heard from a few employees who did not get the answers they wanted from the Thriftline, and, in at least one case, a TSP operator told the person that the new system "is not available yet." That's clearly not correct, but startups are always difficult for new computer systems, it seems.


Washington, D.C.: I read your column on a regular basis and am posting this early in hopes you'll be able to respond.

Can you give us the latest on the FSA? Maybe you know what's going on but everyone else (OPM, Dept, Bureau, SHPS) is seriously confused. Yesterday was the official start of the enrollment process. As an unnamed employee within an unnamed department, we had received NO guidance/information from anyone (Human Resources, OPM, Dept/Bureau). I was even told by someone who spoke with an SHPS representative yesterday that they were not ready to accept applications!

Since then, I received an e-mail about the "open season." Yet, my agency (while prepared to participate in the program) will not make a decision whether they will absorb the administrative costs of the FSA program until June 27th -- the LAST day to enroll!

Because my son will be 13 early next year, I'm interested in participating. But, the fact that I do not know whether the 1.5 percent administrative costs for the dependent care portion of the FSA will or will not be included, makes it hard to make a decision.

Any words of wisdom?


Stephen Barr: FSAs are another benefit program with a rocky start. You really can't blame your agency for a lack of information. OPM has turned the process over to its contractor, SHPS, and even OPM seems disengaged from administrative issues. OPM did not tell agencies until last week that they had the option of absorbing the overhead costs on behalf of their employees. OPM clearly believes agencies will step up and pay any administrative costs, but the timing for employee decisions and the end of the open season is not the best.

Even if you have to pay the fees, the tax advantage will far outweigh whatever you have to pay in fees. The real trick is to conservatively estimate how much money you need to deduct for your FSAs and then make sure you can get your reimbursements and not leave anything in the till at the end of the year. This is a use-it-or-lose-it program.


SW Washington, D.C.: The mess with the Flexible Spending Accounts astounds me. Not only the delays (apparently remedied) but the lack of publicity. My wife has this program with her private employer and it is beyond me why each and every fed doesn't immediately sign up. That said, one question -- when will they start actually setting aside the money from my check?

Stephen Barr: Well, this is part of the confusion. OPM decided early on not to conduct an extensive education program for this open season; it also set the July 1 date for a launch apparently without realizing that many agencies cannot reprogram their payroll systems in time. Lots of agencies got bogged down this year trying to cope with the retroactive 1 percent pay raise that Congress provided. If you are in one of those agencies able to launch effective July 1, the deductions would start with the second pay period of July.


Midwest: About the catch-up provisions for over 50 FERS employees: Any news on when we will be able to sign up for that?

Stephen Barr: First, it's not just for FERS employees. It's for everybody (except retirees), such as the CSRS-covered employees, able to participate in the TSP. As I mentioned above, it starts in July and the payroll deductions start in August.


Bethesda, Md.: I applaud your article on Friday about the imposition of a performance standard at NIH related to Departmental goals. Secretary Thompson's centralization of all NIH activities within the Department is doing serious damage to morale and work at the "jewel in the crown" that is NIH.

washingtonpost.com: NIH Employees Are Asked to Sign Off on Bush Administration's Goals (Post, June 13)

Stephen Barr: Thanks for the kind words. Clearly, NIH officials need to do a better job of explaining how the Bush administration's management goals fit into the work of individual employees. The idea of starting at the top and cascading down to the rank and file is an accepted practice, but most places I know about do not send out a one-page form with little context and ask for a signature. Some NIH employees have called saying they are thinking about not returning the form or refusing to sign it. That's a potentially serious step, since outright refusal to sign your performance plan can be cause for firing, as I understand the rules. But forcing employees to sign something against their will is a sure way to send morale through the floor. NIH is a national asset and employees there don't deserve to be jerked around like this.


College Park, Md.: I am a young federal worker who has been at GS12 for almost three years. It seems that there are very few GS13s being posted in my area. questions: Since the government is reportedly so worried about the massive retirements that are supposed to happen, what efforts are being made to foster younger leaders? How can young people get the training we need to apply for future management positions? Frankly, I am getting quite discouraged, and only the bleak job market is keeping me in the civil service. Thanks for your insight.

Stephen Barr: There are several forces at work these days, and I'm in no position to judge their strength or impact. But the Bush administration wants to "delayer" management positions, and that may make some GS13 jobs harder to come by. Some non-defense agencies face budget constraints, so that limits their ability to create new career paths or offer promotions.

On the bright side, OPM last week issued regulations that will make it easier for agencies to pay for college courses and degrees. You might want to look at graduate studies. Some places, such as HHS, have set up "emerging leaders" programs to recruit and develop new talent. Depending on your field, you should check with a professional association to see if they have any career counseling services. Also check with your personnel office with the training courses they offer, specifically those that develop people for leadership roles. OPM is trying to foster a new learning environment through the Internet--www.golearn.gov Check it out; some of the courses are free to agencies.

The government does need to retain younger employees, so I hope it gets to hang on to you! Best of luck!


Washington, D.C.: It is not the FSA itself that bothers me. I have one set up through my wife's employer (and I had to convince her of the economic value of it). What insults me is the employers expecting the employee to cover the costs of the program. In the private sector it is a standard benefit that is not paid for by the employee. Your thoughts?

Stephen Barr: That's true. Private-sector employers usually pay the fees out of the money they save on taxes for the employees who opt for FSAs. OPM decided to start the program without using taxpayer dollars, then found it needed time to research whether agencies could cover the costs. About that time, OPM encountered criticism from a federal union and Democrats offering legislation to require agencies to pay the costs. You certainly could argue that OPM should have thought through in the first place whether agencies could pay these costs.


Federalville, Va.: Is there anywhere I can go to get specific information on what type of medical expenses will qualify under the new savings plan? I have seen mention of deductibles, and other things, but without knowing what will qualify it would be difficult to calculate how much to put in the first year. I plan to sit out this partial year, but would like to start doing some calculations for next year.

Stephen Barr: Good point. The fsafeds.com Web site contains some general information on this. Your best source of detailed information is IRS Publication 502--Medical and Dental Expenses. You can get it from www.irs.gov.

The only exception that I'm aware of is that while long-term care premiums are listed in the IRS publication, they cannot be paid through an FSA.

Hopefully, OPM will provide some detailed examples during the 2004 open season, which will occur this fall.


Palo Alto, Calif.: Why is anyone surprised that the TSP doesn't actually work? This is in perfect Orwellian tone with the current administration: state the opposite of the truth with great fanfare (I guess the TSP launch didn't feature any carrier landings or US flags, but, details...), simply deny the overwhelming evidence of exaggerations, incompetence, and failure, and campaign to make this the new US standard. The TSP folks fit right in.

Stephen Barr: That's pretty harsh. You are not alone in being frustrated. But TSP officials worked hard to launch the new system, and they'll get it up to speed in short time, I believe.


Vienna, Va.: Have any agencies (or OPM) announced what, if any increase in Metro Transit subsidies will be forthcoming in response to the rate hikes coming next month? If the Transit subsidies are not increased (even at the expense of other Federal programs) it would be counterproductive... it will put some current transit riders back into their cars, which is exactly what we want to avoid.

Stephen Barr: Have not heard a whisper on this. Generally, agencies adjust their transit subsidy at the start of the year, in keeping with the maximum deduction allowed under tax law.


Bethesda, Md.: Competitive sourcing has really reduced morale at my agency. One of the jokes was we needed a contractor to help us write a competitive bid. I've never seen morale so low. Also, it just pains me how government workers and Washington has been demeaned in the political processes here and around the country. How can we turn this around?

Stephen Barr: It's hard to turn around public perceptions that got started during the Vietnam war and the Watergate era. I always advise employees to write their member of Congress and remind them that it's important to speak up for federal employees. There's no doubt that the competitive sourcing initiative is lowering morale in many agencies, even in places where it seems unlikely to take hold. But I've no smart answers on the morale front.


RE: TSP web site: You just can't get there -- timing out every try. There is obviously a lot of pent-up demand!.

Stephen Barr: Yes there is.


Washington, D.C.: Stephen --

Re "competitive sourcing" under the revised OMB Circular A-76: Do you think it will be a detracting factor when federal employees' most efficient organizations submit bids that raises and promotions must be factored into the cost estimates? Federal employees get regularly scheduled raises and promotions, but many private sector employees do not.

Stephen Barr: That was one of the provisions that OMB added to create what it believes will be a more level playing field in the bids. But you're right--we're talking apples and oranges in some of these cases.


Arlington, Va.: Stephen, when will the Pentagon changes you wrote about today begin? Where are the unions on the changes? Thank you.

washingtonpost.com: Senate Committee Backs Plan for Overhaul of Pentagon Pay, Rules (Post, June 18)

Stephen Barr: If the past is a guide, Congress won't wrap up the bill until early September. The president will get signed by October. Then Defense will move as quickly as possible. But if the Senate prevails with its version, there would be a three-year phase in. As a practical matter, Defense would likely face a lengthy roll out even if the Senate provision gets dropped.

Union lobbyists are working on members and monitoring the bill. They were instrumental in getting many House Democrats to object to the bill, and their views were taken seriously when the Senate started on its version. Unions, of course, prefer the Senate version--although they would prefer neither.


Arlington, Va.: Sorry for another TSP question but how do you move contributions you made into one fund years ago into another fund? It seems you can only do that prospectively or at least, they don't tell you how to move money like this.

Stephen Barr: What you describe is what TSP calls an interfund transfer. You can do it on the website (when it is fully operative) or by calling the Thriftline (504-255-8777) or by filing a form you can get online or at your personnel office.

To change how much money goes into each fund on an ongoing basis, you want to revise what TSP calls your contribution allocation. You do that through your agency's payroll office.

Hope that helps.


Arlington, Va.: In what decade does Rumsfeld hope to implement his reorganization plan for DOD civilian employees? It isn't going to happen in new fiscal year. I would think lawsuits and court challenges would delay it even longer. The HRO's throughout DOD are just too overburdened to initiate these changes over the next 24 months.

Stephen Barr: Good point. A few years ago, some Navy employees filed a class-action challenging how job performance ratings were handled at NAVSEA, but going to court is an inefficient way of resolving differences. Hopefully, Defense will reach out to the unions and employees and accept feedback on how to pace the change.


Arlington, Va.: You can't be fired for refusing to sign your performance plan. At least not in DOD. Been there, refused to sign it and wasn't fired.
I probably won't sign my new one if Rumsfled's changes go through in DOD.

A DOD adjudicator

Stephen Barr: Thanks for that example. While refusing to sign may not get you fired, it probably won't endear you to your boss.


Washington, D.C.: When will we know more about changes planned for DHS? Thanks.

Stephen Barr: Homeland security officials are out in the field talking to employees. Here in Washington, design teams are at work compiling various options for Tom Ridge to look at. I expect a final decision late this year.


Fairfax, Va.: Stephen, last week you broke a story about a private bill being snuck into House Resolution 1588, which is a weapons bill.

The bill basically allowed for Al White to escape charges for violating the Hatch Act in the middle of the OSC (Office of Special Counsel) investigation on him. This seems to be an abuse of legislative power to circumvent the checks and balances that make our government as ethical as possible. It also appears that Tom Davis must owe Mr. White a favor and that he is championing this bill. Through bartering, it appears that what was originally a proposed change to the Hatch Act, it applies to just Al White.

Do you think the Senate will allow the addition of this portion of the bill? My understanding is that it is in Conference at this moment. This seems to be a very disturbing use of government power. Thanks.

Stephen Barr: Not sure what senators will do. This provision is not in their bill, and the Office of Special Counsel has sent letters to the Hill expressing opposition and warning that it would set a bad precedent that could weaken Hatch Act enforcement. Congress, however, has the power to offer relief to individuals, and often does, although usually not in a large Defense Department bill.

Once again, we've run out of time for today's discussion. Thanks to all of you who sent in questions, and thanks to all of you who take the time to read this transcript. We'll see you here at noon next Wednesday!


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