Federal Employees News Digest

Insight by Mike Causey: It’s for your own bono

If they haven’t tried already, I fully suspect that someday, some activist will demand that the words “In God We Trust” be removed from all U.S. currency. Maybe they could do it when they’ve replaced all the current portraits on the paper currency with more deserving people. Like movie stars or reality TV persons. Change is good, right?

(By the way, in researching this I spoke with someone at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing here in DC. Found out some interesting stuff, like they print more money in Texas than here, and I believe she said that while they still print $2 bills with Jefferson’s portrait, they only print them every two or three years. I found that interesting. And I bought a sheet of uncut $2 bills at the BEP gift shop). Now back to business.

Anyhow, when and if the Supreme Court gives the nod to changing the motto on our money, I think we should replace it with CUI BONO. That’s Latin, of course, and it means “for whose benefit?” It’s a real-world question that should be asked just about any time anybody proposes anything that requires or forbids us—as individuals, groups or a nation—to do something. Anything. Eat more cheese. Or not. Any mandate.

So why, when Sen. Blowhard introduces a bill to require federal retirees to purchase Medicare Part B, should people say CUI BONO? While that is not a very sexy example, it just so happens that there is a serious bill before Congress—H.R. 5714—that would in fact require retired postal workers who are 65 and older to purchase Medicare Part B. Backers and opponents of the plan say it would save/cost tons of money and that it would help/hurt postal workers, the taxpayers and the bottom line of the U.S. Postal Service. Both sides, up to a point, have data which proves their position.

Right now, postal workers are in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, along with other feds, retirees and survivors. If they were to leave it, folks at other agencies might be the next to be “reformed.” Which could be a good thing, or a nightmare, depending on whom you believe.

But the effort to “reform” the FEHBP for postal retirees is a good example of the CUI BONO rule. When anything comes out of Congress or the Pentagon or the White House, it is a good idea to go beyond the whiz-bang sales pitch to see who REALLY benefits. Who would make a zillion dollars if lawmakers ban or require something? Which individual, company, maybe even political party, stands to make big $$$ if we legalize or outlaw something? It’s a fair question. Since Watergate, the media has had one hard and fast rule: Follow the money. But, as we’ve discussed here before, we in the media don’t do a very good job of it because it is expensive, very time-consuming and hard work.

So if following the money trail—walking back the cat, in CIA terms—is too tough, maybe we should look forward with the CUI BONO question. The answers could tell us a lot. Two quick examples in your back yard…

Time Travel Window: At one time, people who left government under the old CSRS retirement program and took out their retirement contributions had to pay it all back—at once with interest—if they returned to government and wanted to retire with a higher pension. But at some point, Congress, out of the blue, introduced a bill that permitted people who left and returned within a certain period of time to repay their contributions in monthly payments, with slight deductions from their enhanced pensions. Later, Congress changed the magic dates again to squeeze in a favored Capitol Hill staffer who left government, then returned years later with a career civil service job. By changing the dates, he (and anybody else who fit that category and knew about the obscure time window) could retire with a larger pension without having to make a lump-sum payment for the contributions he took when he left.

Sole Source Contractor: A congressional committee, after two years of testimony, investigation and votes, passed a new law mandating certain personnel reforms government-wide. The law required key personnel in each agency (a total of thousands of people) to get costly training. It was later discovered that the only certified training program in the country was run by a company managed by someone whose spouse was the staff director of the committee.

There are probably dozens of others laws, or changes in law, that were done to benefit a specific person. Like the change which made it possible for an oft-married, oft-divorced member of Congress to punish one his least favorite wives by legally shutting her out of a survivor benefit.

I confirmed the above examples (plus two more) with two long-time Washington lobbyists. One was a staff aid to a member of Congress who was on the committee cited above. He saw the bill introduced, nurtured and become law. He knew for a long time CUI BONO.

So next time somebody asks you to support or oppose some change in rules or law, give some thought to CUI BONO. The proposal or change may seem good on its face, but it would be nice if at least once in a while the public/taxpayers got a peek at the identity of the wizard behind the screen, and who benefits.


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Edward A. Zurndorfer Certified Financial Planner
Mike Causey Columnist
Tom Fox VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service
Mathew B. Tully Legal Analyst

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