As the “will he, won’t he” game swirls around Rep. Paul Ryan’s decision to be or not to be speaker of the House, one question looms for the federal worker — what does it mean for me?
The answer – a potential hit on your pocketbook.
Unlike so much of what passes for news in Washington, this isn’t just speculation. Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, left an unambiguous record during his four years as chairman of the House Budget Committee.
During that tenure, which ended in January, Ryan led the House in approving legislation that would effectively cut federal employees’ pay by forcing them to contribute more toward pensions with no increase in benefits, kill a retirement program for certain government staffers and eliminate student loan reimbursements. In his budget plans for fiscal years 2012 and 2013, Ryan pushed for even longer federal pay freezes than the three-year basic pay freeze initiated by President Obama. Additionally, Ryan repeatedly sought to reduce the number of federal employees through attrition. Feds were saved when many of his proposals were not adopted by the Senate, then controlled by Democrats.
Ryan’s votes have earned him failing grades on voting scorecards tabulated by federal employee organizations. In recent tallies, the American Federation of Government Employees scored him zero for failing to agree with the organization’s legislative positions a single time. He did a little better with the National Treasury Employees Union, 10 percent, and the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association (NARFE) with 15 percent.
“Ryan demonstrated a belief that government is the cause of all the woes in this country,” said William R. Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees.
Ryan’s fiscal year 2015 budget resolution, nicknamed “The Path to Prosperity” like his other plans, says, “Washington owes the American people a responsible, balanced budget.” But prosperity is not what feds would get. To the contrary, Ryan’s path would lead to much thinner wallets for these employees.
Federal pay still would be frozen if a provision in Ryan’s FY 2012 budget had been enacted. It proposed freezing pay for five years, saying that would “boost private-sector employment by slowing the explosive growth of the public sector.”
His FY 2015 plan proposed to “increase the share of federal retirement benefits funded by the employee. This policy has the effect of reducing the personnel costs for the employing agency.” But it would have increased costs to the personnel by an estimated 5.5 percentage points of their salaries. Employees would pay more, but get no more. That would amount to an effective pay cut.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), who sat next to Ryan as the top Democrat on the Budget Committee, at the time called this “a straight-out 5 percent pay cut.”
While couched in the language of “reform,” House Republicans under Ryan would have ended a supplemental benefit for workers in the Federal Employee Retirement System who retired before age 62, when their Social Security eligibility begins. Ryan favors placing new feds in a “defined-contribution” retirement system, which puts greater onus on employees than a “define benefit” system. These moves would save the government $125 billion over 10 years, says his fiscal year 2015 plan. Left unsaid, that money would be a cost, not a savings, to federal workers.
Budget committee Democrats pushed back with an analysis that placed the cuts in a broader context. “After successive pay-freezes, pay reductions and benefit cuts amounting to almost $140 billion, no one group has been asked to contribute more to deficit reduction than federal employees,” the report said.
Looking for another way to save Uncle Sam money, Ryan also proposed ditching the student loan reimbursement federal agencies offer their staffers.
Almost 8,500 federal employees surely must be glad that proposal had not taken effect in calendar 2014 when they received $58.7 million in student loan repayments. That’s an average of $6,905 per worker. Despite Ryan’s wishes, the repayment program is growing. Compared to 2013, the number of employees getting this benefit increased by 15 percent in 2014 and the amount reimbursed rose by 11 percent, according to a recent Office of Personnel Management report.
“Several Federal agencies utilized student loan repayments to recruit and retain employees in Federal Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) positions…” Beth Cobert, the acting OPM director, wrote in the report. “Notably, the Department of Defense provided student loan repayments to over 550 engineers. … Employees in STEM career fields are vital to the Federal Government’s mission, and OPM is committed to continue working with agencies to help them attract and retain talented professionals using student loan repayments and other human resources management flexibilities.”
There might have been fewer talented employees across the federal service if Ryan’s plan to reduce the workforce through attrition and proposals to cut pay and benefits had become law. Ryan, working with a Senate now controlled by Republicans, would have an even greater pulpit to proselytize his Path to Prosperity as speaker.
Jessica Klement, NARFE’s legislative director, is not certain what a Speaker Ryan would mean for the federal workforce. But “based on his voting record,” she said, “I’m not optimistic.”