The Washington Post

Federal workers could pay more for retirement benefits


Much to the consternation of federal employees, the question has quickly moved from “if” to “how much.”

The subject is the hit on federal retirement benefits that could emerge from budget talks on Capitol Hill.

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

House and Senate negotiators on the Budget Conference Committee are working to resolve differences in their two spending plans by the end of the week. An announcement could come as early as Tuesday.

Federal employees and their supporters on the Hill hope the workers won’t be made to sacrifice more toward government savings — but hope is not the same as expectation.

“That’s really demoralizing for the federal workforce, who have done nothing to cause the financial mess we’re in,” said Jessica Klement, legislative director of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association.

Reports on how much will be sought have included workers paying an additional 5.5 percent of pay toward their retirement, saving the government $130 billion over 10 years. That’s been proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Budget Committee. Another proposal calls for the 1.2 percent increase in pension payments proposed by President Obama, for a savings of about $20 billion over 10 years. My colleague Lori Montgomery reports that Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chairwoman of the Senate Budget Committee, are considering another option, one that would require federal workers to come up with less than $17 billion.

Changing the formula for calculating annuities from the highest three years of pay to the highest five reportedly also is under consideration. The 2010 Simpson-Bowles deficit-reduction report estimated that change would save $5 billion over 10 years.

Any amount is too much for federal employees.

“NTEU strongly opposes any further cuts in federal compensation, including what would be a pay cut resulting from an increase in pension contributions, and will continue its efforts to see that no further cuts are made,” said Colleen M. Kelley, president of theNational Treasury Employees Union.

“Going after federal employee wages yet again is insulting, demeaning and downright criminal,” said J. David Cox Sr., head of the American Federation of Government Employees. “It is disgraceful for elected officials to think that they can raid a fully funded retirement system to pay down a deficit that federal employees did not create.”

Proposals discussed so far would not take from current annuitants but would hit current employees — the same workers who have already contributed billions to help close the government’s deficit. Employees hired after 2012, however, would not pay more toward retirement under the president’s plan because they already pay its higher rate.

Along with federal employee organizations, members of the regional congressional delegation have been vigorous in their opposition to greater worker sacrifices.

“Over the last several years, federal employees — VA doctors and nurses, CIA, FBI and DEA agents and NIH researchers; and let’s not forget the victims of the recent shootings at the Navy Yard — have repeatedly been used as pawns in negotiations,” Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) complained in a letter last week to leaders of the budget committees. “To date, changes to pay and pensions for the federal workforce have already generated $113 billion in savings.”

The changes in pay, including the three-year freeze on federal employees’ basic pay rates, have led to the purchasing power of their pay falling by about 7 percent since 2010, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Murray does not favor an additional hit on federal workers, and Ryan’s office would not comment on why he thinks that’s okay.

Opposition to employees paying more has not been helped by the president. Obama’s plan to increase their out-of-pocket retirement contributions makes it more difficult for their supporters to argue for no increase.

In part because of that, and Ryan’s push to hit government employees again, there’s little reason for them to be optimistic about the budget process. They face the possibility of additional employee sacrifices through greater retirement contributions with no increase in benefits or continued sequestration budget cuts that could lead to layoffs.

Or “it could be both,” Klement said. “This is unacceptable to us.”

The truth is that many federal employees probably won’t have any choice but to accept what amounts to give-backs. In one form or another, and maybe in more ways than one, the budget agreement likely will make them give back money to their employer. Others, particularly the highly skilled and the highly talented, might choose to leave government, especially if they are eligible to retire.

In January, federal employees are scheduled to get a 1 percent raise. They should not make plans for that money, because an increase in retirement contributions could wipe it out.

Saying it is “dismayed” at the prospect of Congress increasing employee retirement contributions, the Federal-Postal Coalition, a group of more than 30 federal employee organizations, said Monday in a letter to the conference committee that “no other group of Americans has contributed to deficit reduction the way federal employees have.”

It’s a good argument, but it probably won’t stop Congress from telling feds they have to give and give again.

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at

The Freddie Gray case

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Campaign 2016 Email Updates

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Get Zika news by email

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!
Show Comments
The Democrats debate Thursday. Get caught up on the race.
The big questions after New Hampshire, from The Post's Dan Balz
Can Bernie Sanders cut into Hillary Clinton's strength in the minority community and turn his challenge into a genuine threat? And can any of the Republicans consolidate anti-Trump sentiment in the party in time to stop the billionaire developer and reality-TV star, whose unorthodox, nationalistic campaign has shaken the foundations of American politics?
Clinton in New Hampshire: 2008 vs. 2015
Hillary Clinton did about as well in N.H. this year as she did in 2008, percentage-wise. In the state's main counties, Clinton performed on average only about two percentage points worse than she did eight years ago (according to vote totals as of Wednesday morning) -- and in five of the 10 counties, she did as well or better.
Upcoming debates
Feb. 11: Democratic debate

on PBS, in Wisconsin

Feb 13: GOP debate

on CBS News, in South Carolina

Feb. 25: GOP debate

on CNN, in Houston, Texas

Campaign 2016
Where the race stands

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.