Ask Sen. Ron Johnson about federal employee priorities and the first thing he talks about is his concern that the government’s deficit spending will reach $127 trillion over 30 years.
That’s the prism filtering the view of this first-term senator from Oshkosh, Wis., a tea party Republican and former plastics businessman. His views will be important to federal workers come January when Johnson takes over as chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee — it oversees the workforce.
Johnson’s ascension to the chairmanship isn’t official yet, but he acknowledges it is a done deal.
“I think everybody agrees with that,” he said in an interview. “I’ve certainly been talking to everybody. . . . We’ve been kind of behind the scenes preparing for this eventuality, so nobody’s objected to it.”
Federal employees and their organizations, however, are sure to object to many of his positions on pay, benefits, unionization and the Postal Service. A number of his proposals are outlined in a report on deficit reduction he issued in 2011. Among those is the elimination of several agencies that deal directly with the federal workforce.
On recent congressional scorecards, the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Treasury Employees Union rated him at 7 percent and 20 percent, respectively.
Unfortunately for supporters of the federal working class, Johnson’s thoughts reflect the new political reality resulting from Republican Party electoral victories last week. Already dominant in the House, Republicans now will control the Senate. That does not mean Johnson’s ideas automatically will become law. But it does mean federal employee organizations will begin playing much more defense when Republicans take Capitol Hill.
Johnson discussed some of his views Friday with the Federal Diary.
One of the richest people in Congress, Johnson wants a hearing to examine whether federal employees are overpaid, even after a three-year freeze on their basic pay rates. “Studies I’ve seen in the past would indicate that is the case,” Johnson said.
He acknowledges there are differing reports on this, including one by the Federal Salary Council in October that said white-collar feds are paid on average 35 percent less than their private-sector counterparts.
On health-care and retirement benefits, he noted, “those things in the private sector have been modified dramatically,” which means employees have been required to pay more so employers can pay less.
“I think it’s unrealistic,” Johnson added, “for public-sector employees to believe that they are immune from modifications to their pay and benefit packages.”
Given that the estimated federal workforce contribution to deficit reduction is almost $140 billion over 10 years, primarily through the pay freeze and previously approved cuts to retirement programs for new staffers, there is no reason for feds to believe they are “immune.”
While Johnson feels it is “way too premature” to discuss specific reductions in the number of workers, he said “the federal government is way larger than it should be” and a smaller government would need fewer employees. His deficit-reduction report recommended cutting federal employees by 10 percent and federal contractors by 15 percent.
Whatever the size of the government, he thinks its workforce should not have collective-bargaining rights — a notion that will make blood boil in union halls.
“I really don’t think that the public-sector employees should be unionized,” he said.
He favors revisiting the decision to allow airport security officers to unionize, which was a major victory for the AFGE in 2011. But he added that talk of legislation to revoke that authorization is “premature” and not at the top of his agenda.
Johnson wants to find areas of bipartisan agreement within the committee and “obviously that would be an area of disagreement, and so I would put that a little bit lower on my priority list.” His 2011 report calls for privatizing federal officers at the top 35 airports.
Securing the border and reducing government regulations are areas he said he thinks the committee can find agreement. Ensuring the financial security of the U.S. Postal Service should be on that list, too. But he knows his prescription for the Postal Service would draw strong opposition.
Johnson would like to see the USPS go through bankruptcy proceedings, which he said, “really would turn the post office into a private entity.” He said he realizes there are political problems and constitutional issues with that position and is open to compromise.
Johnson is a deficit hawk, and a slew of government programs directly affecting the federal workforce are among his prey. Recommendations in his 2011 report include several that would cut federal spending at the expense of federal employees. Though some of the suggestions may have been overtaken by events, the report does provide insight into Johnson’s thinking. It proposed:
● ●Calculating federal annuities on the five highest years of salary instead of the highest three.
●Phasing out the Federal Employee Retirement System (FERS) Basic Benefit Plan.
●Ending the FERS early-retirement supplement.
●Eliminating inflation adjustments on early Civil Service Retirement System benefits.
●Freezing Senior Executive Service bonuses for three years.
●Cutting civilian agency travel budgets by 75 percent.
●Eliminating locality pay for many federal employees.
The report also suggested eliminating the Office of Special Counsel, the Merit Systems Protection Board, the Office of Government Ethics and the Federal Labor Relations Authority, all of which deal directly with federal employees. Johnson would have their functions and federal workforce cases handled by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission consolidated into the Office of Personnel Management.
“It is past time for Congress to get serious about our spending crisis and impose fiscal restraint,” Johnson said when he released the report.
Restraint — with his views on the workforce, many federal employees will feel he is the one who needs it.
Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.