The Washington Post

House plays anti-Santa to federal employees


It’s the Washington holiday party season, but the flow of wine and chocolate can’t overcome the bitter taste in the mouths of federal workers.

The buzzkill is the prospect that a two-year base pay freeze will be extended, even as they face yet another threat of a government shutdown.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about federal government and workplace issues that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. Davidson previously was an assistant city editor at The Washington Post and a Washington and foreign correspondent with The Wall Street Journal, where he covered federal agencies and political campaigns. View Archive

Just in time for Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, the House passed legislation Tuesday that would continue to take thousands out of the pockets of the federal workforce.

The legislation would offset a one-year continuation of the payroll tax holiday in part by adding 12 months to the two-year freeze on federal employees’ base pay. Employees also would have to pay more toward their retirement under the measure, which the House passed largely along party lines, with Republicans wearing the Grinch suits.

One-two punch

In the second part of a one-two punch, the administration told federal employees Wednesday to prepare for another threatened government shutdown, which could affect most agencies this weekend. The House vote made a shutdown more of a possibility because it complicates talks between Democrats and Republicans over separate legislation to fund the government through the remaining months of the fiscal year.

“A government shutdown would be devastating for federal workers at agencies where funding has not yet been approved by Congress,” said William R. Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees. “A shutdown would lead to furloughs and missed paychecks for thousands of federal employees at a time when they can least afford it. Federal workers shouldn’t have to spend the holidays worrying about how to make their next mortgage payment simply because Congress can’t get its act together. Federal employees, and indeed all Americans, deserve better from their government.”

Employees can take some comfort from the expectation that the House payroll tax bill will not become law. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) pronounced it dead before arrival at his chamber, and President Obama promised to veto it.

But before getting too confident, federal employees should realize that their interests are not at the center of this debate. Republicans want to tie the payroll tax holiday to acceleration of the 1,700-mile Keystone XL pipeline, a connection that Obama opposes. “Any effort to try to tie Keystone to the payroll tax cut, I will reject,” Obama said last week.

‘The scapegoats’

He has not, however, announced opposition to an extended pay freeze or other hits on federal employees. “Federal workers are the scapegoats,” Eddie Eitches, president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 476, said over the music of a union party. “Why is everybody getting hyped over the Keystone pipeline and not our situation?”

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the committee that oversees the federal workforce, caused heartburn Tuesday when he said federal employees should prepare for a third-year freeze. He previously had recommended extending the freeze as part of a deficit-reduction effort.

There is, however, strong opposition among Democrats to provisions in the House bill affecting federal workers. Several D.C. area Democrats — including Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (Md.) and Reps. Chris Van Hollen (Md), James P. Moran (Va.) and Gerald E. Connolly (Va.) — participated in a conference call Wednesday sponsored by the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association to denounce the House action.

Cardin mentioned the letter he and other senators sent to Reid last week urging the Senate to “reject any proposals that call for pay freezes or other forms of compensation reduction for federal workers, or significant reductions in the federal workforce.”

Other senators who signed the letter were Democrats Barbara A. Mikulski (Md.), Barbara Boxer (Calif.), James Webb (Va.), Tom Harkin (Iowa), Mark Warner (Va.), Carl Levin (Mich.) and Daniel K. Akaka (Hawaii), who chairs a federal workforce subcommittee that is part of Lieberman’s panel.

Connolly said Republicans demonstrate their hypocrisy when they insist on paying for a payroll tax cut designed to benefit the middle-class while pushing unpaid tax breaks for the rich.

“It is ironic to me,” he said, “that the Republicans have abandoned their own theology, long-standing, that tax cuts pay for themselves and don’t need to be offset at all.”

One of only 14 Republicans to vote against the House bill was Rep. Frank R. Wolf (Va.). He issued a long statement detailing why he broke with his party. Near the end, he said, “Some would have the one-year tax ‘holiday’ financed through a long-term, structural attack on federal employees.”

He reminded his colleagues that some federal civilians risk their lives on behalf of the nation and provide many vital services.

“The first American killed in Afghanistan, Mike Spann, was a CIA agent and a constituent from my congressional district,” he said.

That’s a sensitivity that too many in his party lack.

Follow the Federal Diary on Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

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