This year's major and very effective lobbying effort by unions and associations representing active-duty and retired federal workers could produce a big payoff in the next session of Congress.
A number of bills that were once legislative long shots (or introduced only to pacify some constituent group) have picked up critical political and grass-roots support that will carry over into next year.
Hearings have been held on many key issues. Record numbers of co-sponsors have signed on to many bills. With hearings out of the way, the House and Senate, in some instances, will be free next year to vote on the legislation, work out compromises or both.
Large numbers of co-sponsors show strength and encourage wavering members to jump on the bandwagon. If you are doing the math on co-sponsors, remember the Senate has 100 members, and the House has 435.
Examples of energized issues include:
* Social Security "offset": A record 192 House members have co-sponsored legislation to modify the impact of the "offset" law, which can reduce--and often wipes out--the spousal or survivor Social Security benefit due a retired federal worker. The offset law doesn't affect the civil service annuity earned by a retiree, but it can wipe out the monthly Social Security benefit due the spouse of someone covered by Social Security.
Under the proposed legislation, there would no offset applied to the first $1,200 a month of combined civil service and Social Security benefits. Above that amount, the full offset would apply. Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.) is the chief sponsor of the offset legislation.
* Social Security "windfall": Eighty-seven House members have signed on to legislation that would modify the "windfall" law. The windfall can reduce--but not eliminate--the monthly Social Security benefit earned by someone who is also getting a civil service annuity. For someone retiring this year, the maximum reduction from the windfall law is a little more than $250 a month.
Under proposed legislation, the first $2,000 in combined monthly Social Security and civil service benefits would be exempt from any reduction. Amounts between $2,000 and $3,000 a month would be subject to a scaled-back reduction. Combined benefits that exceeded $3,000 a month would be subject to the regular reduction formula. More than 90 percent of retirees who have been hit by the windfall law would benefit from the legislation. The chief sponsors are Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.).
* Long-term care: Major groundwork has been laid in the House for a compromise next year on proposals to provide long-term care insurance at group rates to federal civilian and military personnel, their spouses and parents-in-law and retirees. Federal workers--and anyone else--can buy long-term care insurance now on the open market. But group-rate premiums and enrollment standards would help many older people and people with medical problems.
Long-term care legislation was first proposed by Republicans. But congressional Democrats and the White House have endorsed the concept. The current hang-up is that Republicans favor letting a number of companies bid on and participate in the program. Democrats and most groups representing federal workers and retirees favor a single plan with strong oversight by the Office of Personnel Management.
The civilian-military long-term care plan is sponsored by Rep. Constance A. Morella (R-Md.). It has been introduced in the Senate by Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.). The Morella-Cleland legislation is supported by the White House. In the House, there are 126 co-sponsors, and in the Senate, there are 13.
* Pay raises: White-collar federal workers will get an average 4.8 percent pay raise in January. The exact amount will vary from city to city, depending on how much of the increase President Clinton allocates to locality pay. If, for example, he authorizes a 3.8 percent national pay raise and allocates the remaining 1 percentage point to locality pay, federal workers in the Washington-Baltimore area would get an increase of 4.94 percent. Workers in Richmond would get 4.78 percent, and those in Philadelphia would get 5 percent.
Federal civil servants got 4.8 percent, instead of the 4.4 percent proposed by Clinton, only because Congress approved the higher amount for military personnel. Military personnel also will get midyear pay raises (based on rank and time in service) next year. Pro-fed politicians hope that improvements in military pay--plus the fact that next year is an election year--will prompt Congress and the White House to authorize a larger civilian pay raise for January 2001.
Stale Health Plan Data
If you buy the Consumers' Checkbook Guide to Health Insurance Plans for Federal Employees, be sure you get the version for this year's open season. Two readers--one in Columbia and one in Arlington--say copies of the guide they picked up at newsstands were last year's version, which is obsolete. The guide, by insurance expert Walton Francis, is available in most drugstores or by calling Consumers' Checkbook at 202-347-7283. It's excellent--if you get the right year!
Mike Causey's e-mail address is email@example.com