President Obama’s reelection victory signals two things to federal employees.
One, there will be fewer hits on their pocketbooks than if Mitt Romney had won. Two, Uncle Sam will run an activist government, at least to a point.
The two issues are connected through the underlying theme of this presidential campaign — the appropriate role of government. Obama and Romney, Democrats and Republicans clearly differ on just what Sam and his staff should do.
When George Wallace tried to ride racism to the presidency in 1968, he said the difference in the two parties was the difference between “tweedledum and tweedledee.” That’s not true anymore, and the difference today is important, not just for feds, but for the direction of the nation.
Consider this comment in Obama’s speech to the Democratic National Convention in September: “We don’t think government can solve all our problems. But we don’t think that government is the source of all our problems — any more than are welfare recipients, or corporations, or unions, or immigrants, or gays, or any other group we’re told to blame for our troubles.”
He also reminded Democrats “that not every problem can be remedied with another government program or dictate from Washington.”
Compare that with Romney’s comments in Dubuque, Iowa, a year ago: “We have to cut back on the scale of the federal government, and for me, that will start by reducing federal employees by 10 percent — do that through attrition — and then something else that’s just as important. And that’s to make sure that people that work for government don’t get higher pay and better benefits than people that work in the private sector. I’ll link them together.”
What do those differing approaches to government mean for Frankie and Flo Fed?
Under Obama, they can expect the freeze on their basic pay rates to end, probably in a few months. Much to the consternation of federal employees, he proposed a freeze scheduled to end this year. It since has been extended at least through March, for a total of 27 months.
At that point, Obama, who was endorsed by federal labor organizations, wants to give workers a 0.5 percent raise. Union leaders are pushing for that to be made retroactive to January 2013.
Employees might not have seen a raise for years under Romney. A federal budget document approved by the House and prepared under the direction of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Romney’s vice presidential candidate, proposed that the freeze be extended through 2015. That would have been a total of five years.
But make no mistake, given the government’s budget problems: The second Obama administration will continue to look for savings tied to the workforce, which ultimately could affect services to taxpayers.
Both Obama and Republicans sought to have government employees pay more for their retirement benefits, with the GOP seeking a higher required contribution than Democrats. Congress did approve increased contributions for employees hired beginning next year, except for those with five years of previous federal employment. Don’t be surprised if increased retirement payments for current workers are proposed again.
The connection between the role of government and government workers also is clear in attitudes on the size of the workforce.
Various Obama administration agencies already have offered buyouts, but no government-wide target for reducing the workforce has been announced. In response to a questionnaire from the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, Obama said that “rather than blindly cutting our federal workforce, my administration has taken great strides to cut waste, get the most from taxpayer dollars and reform how the government works so the American people get the best service possible.”
While federal union leaders denounced the Obama-backed pay freeze and retirement contribution increase, there were several other policies that made their choice of candidates easy. The president:
●Allowed Transportation Security Administration screeners to bargain collectively.
●Started labor-management forums, a revised version of the labor-management partnerships begun by President Bill Clinton and allowed to wither by President George W. Bush.
●Provided family employment benefits for the same-sex partners of federal employees.
●Allowed seasonal federal firefighters to obtain health insurance like other workers.
●Signed legislation allowing employees to count unused sick leave toward their retirement credit.
Federal union leaders were not pleased with everything Obama did in his first term, but they are happy with his victory.
“This election was a momentous victory for federal employees,” said National Federation of Federal Employees President William R. Dougan. “With Romney’s defeat, and key victories for Democrats in a number of closely contested Senate races, federal employees can breathe a big sigh of relief.”
True. At least until the next fiscal challenge.
Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.