T he start of fiscal 2005 -- Oct. 1 -- is just a few days away. But most federal employees already have figured out that Congress is going to miss the deadline for completing work on their agency budgets.
Only the Defense Department's appropriation for the next fiscal year has been signed by the president. The $416 billion appropriation will help finance fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and will provide a pay raise and other allowances to the troops.
But approval of the civil service pay raise appears as if it will be delayed, raising the prospect that federal employees will receive a partial, rather than full, increase at the start of 2005.
The federal employee raise is part of the transportation, treasury and general government spending bill, which has been approved by the House and is pending in the Senate. Both versions of the bill would provide a 3.5 percent pay increase for federal employees.
Unfortunately, Republican congressional aides say that work on the bill and several other spending bills will not be finished before the Oct. 1 deadline. The aides predict that Congress will approve a short-term funding bill, probably through Oct. 8 or 10, designed to keep the government from shutting down.
That will buy time for Congress to address more urgent financial needs of the government and to draft a second "continuing resolution" that will keep federal agencies in operation through late November.
In this scenario, aides said, House and Senate members could return after the Nov. 2 election in a lame-duck session to negotiate what they call an omnibus bill that would finance government operations for fiscal 2005. They also could bog down and leave spending priorities to be set by the next Congress in late January.
Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said delayed action on a pay raise that goes to nearly 1.8 million government employees drives up taxpayer costs and places unnecessary burdens on agencies because they would have to reprogram their computers and take other steps to recalculate payrolls and benefits.
She also pointed out that this is not the first time that a federal pay raise has rolled over into the next fiscal year. This spring, she noted, agencies had to wait several weeks for the White House to issue an executive order implementing the 2004 raise.
This staggered process, she said, is "a completely unnecessary and costly way to operate."
Regardless of how congressional wrangling over agency budgets turns out, Congress will ensure that federal employees get their raises. "I will fight for federal employees until they see the 2005 pay adjustment appear on their paychecks," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.). If the pay raise is delayed into the new year, he said, "I will make sure that it is retroactive to January 1, 2005, so that no employee is cheated out of their fair pay."
The first day of October also means that certain rate schedules change. The General Services Administration, for instance, will put new per diem rates into effect.
Under the per diem rates set for fiscal 2005, the standard lodging rate will increase from $55 to $60 per night for federal employees traveling on official government business. The standard rate for meals and incidental expenses will stay the same at $31 per day.
GSA also sets separate rates for 420 metropolitan areas at the urging of agencies whose employees cannot find lodging in those cities at the standard rate. To the consternation of some federal travelers, the per diems will decrease for some popular destinations.
For example, the per diem rate for Los Angeles will be $151, down $6. The rate for Manhattan will be split into seasonal rates that range from $220 to $263, compared with the previous rate of $259.
GSA dropped the per diem for Denver from $159 to $137. The per diem also will go down for Orlando, from $142 to $108.
Federal travelers coming into the Washington area also will find a decrease in their per diem, from $201 in fiscal 2004 to $194 in fiscal 2005.
The Office of Personnel Management, meanwhile, will wrap up the 50th anniversary "open season" for the Federal Employees' Group Life Insurance Program on Sept. 30. Until then, government employees can enroll for life insurance or change their coverage without having a physical or answering questions about their health.
On that note, happy new fiscal year.