The agreement means the debt ceiling will be lifted and the government will continue operating without threats from the Republicans’ uncompromising caucus to shut the place down if they don’t get their way.
“The only thing that could really, really hurt at this point is for us to go back into this, this brinkmanship of deciding …are we going to meet our international obligation and pay our national debt? Are we going to shut down the government?” said Vice President Biden. “This takes that off the table.”
For years, the table had been set with entrees that could steal a federal worker’s appetite. Republicans, particularly those in the House, pushed measures that would have effectively cut federal employees’ pay by requiring them to pay 5.5 percent more of their salaries toward retirement with no increase in benefits.
A retirement program for certain staffers faced elimination in the GOP budget plans, as did student loan reimbursement. Speaker-to-be Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), then the House Budget Committee chairman, proposed extended federal pay freezes, including a five-year freeze in his fiscal year 2012 spending plan.
The agreement this week does not include such hits, said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the Budget Committee, because “those of us who have been on the front lines of these negotiations over the years made it absolutely clear that we are not going to accept anything that harms federal employees. They sacrificed over the years.”
No new sacrifices are included in the current budget agreement, leaving federal labor leaders in the unusual position of saying good things about Congress.
“Large budget deals like this one frequently make the federal community nervous, and for good reason. Over the past five years, Congress has consistently turned to federal employees for offsets when funding other priorities, to the tune of $120 billion in lost wages,” said Richard G. Thissen, president of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association (NARFE). “NARFE members have repeatedly told Congress, ‘Enough is enough,’ and it appears this message is sinking in, as this budget deal does not ask for more sacrifices from federal employees and retirees. We hope our leaders in Washington are learning, finally, that they cannot balance the budget on the backs of federal workers and retirees.”
There was more good news for some federal employees, though not directly related to the budget agreement.
About 102,000 of them, out of 2 million, will get a pay raise because of new regulations affecting the locality pay zones, as my colleague Eric Yoder reported. Locality pay is based on where they work. The new regulations will shift the locality designation for these fortunate employees from relatively low-paying areas into nearby metropolitan areas where average pay is greater.
Also apart from the agreement, federal employees are in line for an average 1.3 percent pay hike in January. Everyone will get a 1 percent raise, with the remainder determined by their work location. Some will get a little more than 1.3 percent, some a little less.
Pay raises are set outside of the budget process when the president proposes a pay level. If Congress does nothing, the president’s proposal is accepted. The last two proposals, following a three-year freeze on basic pay rates, were for increases of 1 percent in both 2014 and 2015.
While the budget agreement brought smiles to many, including those in the White House, the path to the deal led Ryan to say “the process stinks.”
For federal workers, it’s the outcome that counts.
International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers President Gregory Junemann said, “This is a pretty decent deal at the end of the day.”
American Federation of Government Employees President J. David Cox Sr., still celebrating his union reaching the 300,000 member mark this week, called the agreement “an exceedingly rare example” of bipartisanship. “The budget also is good news for federal retirees under the Civil Service Retirement System,” he added, “who will no longer be facing a 53 percent increase in their premiums under Medicare Part B.”
National Treasury Employees Union President Tony Reardon was relieved too. But he also had a caution. “Lawmakers have still more work to do to avoid a government shutdown,” because they must approve agency appropriations bills, he said. “They still have to write and pass funding for agencies for fiscal year 2016 at the higher levels in order to avoid a shutdown when current funding runs out on Dec. 11, 2015.”
But with this budget agreement, a shutdown seems like an unlikely possibility.
Staff writer Eric Yoder contributed to this column.