The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Feds would face tougher time if GOP wins Senate

Republicans have a good chance to win the Senate on Nov. 4. No one expects them to lose the House.

So what would a Capitol Hill controlled by Republicans mean for millions of people — federal employees, retirees and their families — directly affected by congressional action?

One way to examine that is by looking at federal workplace legislation passed by the House but not the Senate. The Senate institutionally is a different animal than the House, more moderate by design, so there certainly is no guarantee that bills passed by one would automatically be accepted by the other.

But House measures certainly would get a warmer welcome in a Republican dominated Senate, where they often are ignored by the majority Democrats. A number of those bills would mean a tougher time for feds in Uncle Sam’s workplace.

“If the GOP takes over the Senate in November, they will have carte blanche authority to push through a series of damning proposals that have been successfully blocked for the past two years,” said J. David Cox Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees, citing proposed cuts in retirement benefits, workers compensation and student loan forgiveness.

For Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, a central question in determining how politicians would deal with federal employees is “Do you support or oppose the Ryan budget?”

The House-approved spending plan advanced in April by Budget Committee Chairman Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) drew more anger from federal employee organizations than other recent bills, except those that froze their pay rates. “Chairman Ryan’s budget sends a clear message — federal employees, and the work they perform, aren’t valued,” Joseph A. Beaudoin, president of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, said at the time.

Senate Democrats dismissed Ryan’s budget, but the federal employee related items in it could have new life if the GOP controls that chamber when the next Congress begins in January.

Under the Ryan budget most federal employees would pay 5.5 percentage points more toward retirement with no increase in benefits, effectively a pay cut. Ryan emphasizes  a “defined-contribution system” that centers on employee payments to their retirement program over the current system that includes pensions from their employer, the U.S. government. He estimated his plan would save the government $125 billion over 10 years.

That $125 billion in savings, however, would come from the pockets of federal employees.

Two other House passed measures would make it easier to suspend or fire federal employees if approved by the Senate.

One, H.R. 5169, the Senior Executive Service (SES) Accountability Act, would make it easier to fire the government’s top civil servants. The probation period for senior executives would double to two years. They could be suspended  for 14 days without pay. Grounds for suspension or termination would expand to include, vaguely, “such cause as would promote the efficiency of the service.”

Citing misconduct at the IRS and the Department of Veterans Affairs, Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.), the bill’s sponsor, said “in many cases, these scandals have been spearheaded or continued by senior executive employees.”

But Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association, said the legislation is “a troubling attempt to keep chipping away at laws that protect the federal workforce from becoming a politicized patronage system.”

The other bill, H.R. 2879, the Stop Government Abuse Act, would allow employees to be placed on “investigative leave” for 90 days as a disciplinary measure.

When the bill was approved by the House, its chief sponsor, Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R-Kan.) said it would “allow agency heads to fire reckless employees on the spot.”

Democrats largely opposed both these bills and Ryan’s budget. Yet, despite the often harsh partisan divide in the House, some federal workplace measures were supported by both parties there, but did not pass the Senate.  That could change in a Republican controlled Senate. Among those bills were:

H.R. 313, the Government Spending Accountability Act of 2013. It would limit agency spending on any one conference to $500,000, though that could be waived “to achieve a compelling purpose.” Agencies also could not pay travel expenses for more than 50 domestic staffers to an international conference without approval.

H.R. 5170, the Federal Records Accountability Act of 2014, would create a process to suspend or fire employees “if the Inspector General of an agency determines an employee of the agency has willfully and unlawfully concealed, removed, mutilated, obliterated, falsified, or destroyed any record, proceeding, map, book, document, paper, or other thing in the custody of such employee.”

Bipartisan cooperation  on those two measures, however, is not indicative of Republican and Democratic cohesion on federal workplace matters generally.

“If the agenda of Republicans in the House of Representatives is any guide,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.) the top Democrat on the House committee that deals with workforce issues, “then federal workers should expect a Republican-controlled Senate to increase attacks on employees’ wages, benefits, and due process rights.”