Federal civilian workers could wind up getting smaller pay rises in the future and paying more toward their retirement program if Congress, as expected, begins to take a harder line on government pay and fringe benefit matters.
The new Senate Governmental Affairs Committee isn't organized yet. But once it gets set up the committee, which will have jurisdiction over a wide range of activities from nuclear export policies to the D.C. and federal government, is expected to operate in a different - and tougher - manner than the Post Office-Civil Service Committee that it has swallowed up under the recent reorganization.
The now defunct PO-CS unit had an excellent staff. But in recent years its political leadership took little interest in the business of generating legislation or in oversight of the federal and postal bureaucracy. That is expected to change under Chairman Abraham Ribicoff (D-Conn.) and the change could mean a shorter leash and more critical outlook on federal personnel matters.
Biggest changes for government workers that could come from the new Governmental Affiars Committee would be in the area of pay-fixing and the retirement program.
Several senators who are or will be on the committee have been having their staffs research the complicated federal pay-setting procedure. Others have zeroed in on the government pension program, which is considered by many to be the world's best staff retirement program.
Some members have been astounded to learn that government workers - in effect - have a major hand in determining what their pay levels are. This is because the law gives the Bureau Labor Statistics primary responsibility for surveying private industry salary and coming up with raw data on which the President bases annual semiautomatic pay rise proposals.
At last one senator is considering a staff plan that would take the pay-adjustment survey out of the hands of federal workers - who benefit from the raises - and give it to an outside froup.
Based on questions committee staffers have been asking in government, the Library of Congress and at the General Accounting Office, the new committee is likely to take a special interest in the federal retirement program. Government workers now pay 7 per cent of their annual salary toward the retirements fund (that amount is matched directly by agencies) to finance their future benefits.
In most cases government retirees recover, within an average of 18 months of retiring, all the money they paid into the fund.
The Civil Service Retirement fund, which was facing bankruptcy a few years ago, now is on solid ground. It takes in about $13.5 billion a year (less than $3 billion from employee contributions and the remainder from government payments and/or interest). It now pays out about $8.5 billion a year in benefits and officials say that even under high-inflation rate projections, the fund is on solid ground.
The fund does have, however, an "unfunded liability" of $107 billion.Officials say that is the amount that would be needed if the government went out of business today and had to pay off present and promised retirement benefits. Inadequate funding in the past - from the government, not from employees - is the reason for that massive blot of red ink.
Some senators are anxious to "avoid another New York" and will push for higher employee and government payments to the retirement fund. Even if that doesn't happen, insiders expect Congress will be under heavy public pressure from fiscally distraught taxpayers, employees worried about the solvency of the fund and private employers, too, to kill off any proposed liberalizations of the retirement program . . . that add to the unfunded liability.
More on the new committee's goals and intentions in the next few weeks. But it is safe to assume this will be an era of relative belt-tightening for the government as an employer.