Federal employees escaped with relatively minor angst from Friday’s overnight shutdown, only to face a menacing Monday — budget day.
The second closure in three weeks preceded the release of the fiscal 2019 spending plan by President Trump, who demonstrated again last week his contempt for taxpayers and the federal workforce with his “we’ll do a shutdown” rabble-rousing.
Now, the prospect of a Trump budget produces more anxiety.
The Associated Press reported that Trump will propose a pay-for-performance system for most feds, a notion that makes union leaders seethe.
Performance-based pay sounds like a reasonable idea, but federal employees remember it from the National Security Personnel System at the Defense Department under the last Republican president, George W. Bush.
The implementation was so troubled, the buy-in from employees so poor, and the program so beleaguered with racial discrimination charges that Congress abolished the program.
Now, Trump reportedly wants to install a much broader pay-for-performance system. He won’t get it without a tough fight from federal labor leaders and their Democratic allies.
A pay-for-performance system would be a “nail in the coffin of the apolitical professional civil service,” said J. David Cox Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal union.
In addition to the experienced-based complaints against performance-based pay, labor leaders warn against Trump’s twisted notion of narcissistic fidelity.
“Does anybody want a system that allows financial rewards — funded by taxpayers — to be provided exclusively to those deemed loyal to the administration?” Cox asked.
“Does anybody want a pay system that denies pay adjustments to people considered disloyal to the administration? Pity the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] scientist whose work demonstrates the existence of climate change.”
The president’s reported proposal would save the government $10 billion over 10 years, which means that is what it would cost federal employees. It would apply to about 1.5 million federal workers out of about 2 million. It is not clear who would be excluded.
“In reality, performance-based pay in the federal government is a cost-containment tool, nothing more,” Randy Erwin, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, said in an email. “Once federal workers’ pay becomes ambiguous, it becomes easier to whittle away.”
The Associated Press also said the administration is considering a defined-contribution federal retirement system for new employees, instead of pensions, which are an important part of the federal employees’ retirement plans. Whatever advantages that might have for corporate profits, defined contribution means employees pay more out of pocket toward their retirement and their organizations pay less.
It’s a takeaway.
“It sounds like the administration is trying to put a positive spin,” Erwin said, “on the idea of taking federal workers’ pensions away.”
It’s true that many companies have moved to a defined-contribution system. But for Cox, that’s nothing to brag about: “The proposed elimination of pensions for new [Federal Employees Retirement System] hires is an outrageous effort to have the government join the race to the bottom among American employers. [Last] week’s stock market gyrations show that a traditional pension is an absolute necessity for any kind of retirement income security.”
The Office of Management and Budget did not respond to requests for comment on the president’s plan.
Eliminating the FERS pension was one item on a list of several possible government cost-saving measures, meaning increasing costs to employees, that labor leaders fear the administration will propose.
The first on that list was an employee pay freeze in 2019. Feds received a 1.9 percent pay raise this year, but don’t expect that largesse in the future. Trump rejects most of what President Barack Obama did, but the current chief wants to bring back one thing that Obama installed — a pay freeze for feds. With congressional approval and with reluctance, Obama oversaw a three-year freeze on basic federal pay.
That sacrifice apparently isn’t enough for Trump.
He is considering a federal employee pay freeze for 2019, according to a report, based on a Trump administration document, from Democrats on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
Under Friday’s agreement shutting the shutdown, federal employees don’t have to worry for two years about their offices being open, their ability to serve the public.
But while simply going to work is not a concern now, their livelihood is.