Federal Employees News Digest

A nation divided...

What if Congress got a tip that there was a federal agency, maybe two, where the top executives took weeks of vacations each year, often only worked a three-day week, gave rank-and-file employees few work rights, didn’t allow union representation and — I almost forgot — haven’t done what they are paid to do for decades?

A high profile investigation would be in order, right? Twenty-four seven news coverage. Lights, camera action. A national scandal.

Just one thing; actually, two — the outfits in question already exist. Their track record is pretty much an open book. While they complain about the federal government’s refusal/inability to fire people, they keep their jobs. So who are these pampered feds? And how do they manage to hold onto six-figure jobs, with travel perks, and a to-die-for pension plan? Why doesn’t Congress do something about it? There is a very good reason:

We’re talking about Congress. The watchdogs watching the watchdogs. Specifically, the United States House of Representatives, and its big brother/sister, the United States Senate. While members talk constantly about “working” and/or “fighting” for you, it’s been a while since any blows have been exchanged. Deaths due overwork are rare too. Thanks to gerrymandering from both democratic and republican controlled state legislatures, nine out of every 10 incumbents in the House have jobs for life, if they want them.  Instead of the people picking the candidates, as one expert said, the politicians now pick which people can vote for them. Democratic and Republican legislators redraw districts to insure enough of their registered voters to guarantee victory. Maryland, which surrounds the District of Columbia on three sides, is a classic case. But there are other examples in other states where the candidate of the opposition party really doesn’t even need to campaign, because he or she isn’t going to win.

People who oppose term limits make some good points. What if you got a real statesman/woman in there? Do you want to limit their time in office on a technicality? But then again, so do those who argue that four or five House terms (eight to 10 years) or three Senate terms (18 years) is plenty. Both sides can make a convincing case. Most challengers claim to favor term limits. But, when (if) they actually get the job, they suddenly see the wisdom and logic of longevity.

Congress watchers constantly complain about partisanship on Capitol Hill. That, unlike the old days, when House Speaker Tip O’Neill and President Ronald Reagan frequently got together for drinks and Irish tale-telling, the Senate and House leadership—plus various caucuses—genuinely hate each others guts.  They would rather cut the baby in half (biblical reference) than see it go to a good home.

And while that sounds awful, like divided government, it may actually work in favor of federal workers for whom Congress is the executive board.  Consider this: It has been years since one political party controlled both the House, and the Senate and the White House.  In that time there have been many serious attempts to whack federal benefits, change the way pay raises are computed, and ‘reform’ the cost of living formula for federal retirees. Using that so-called chained CPI (instead of consumer price index used today) would cost retirees an average of $80,000 in future COLAs, according to the National Active and Retired Federal Employees.

Proposals to de-liberalize the retirement computation formula for feds — which would save taxpayers, cost workers tons of money— resurface every year. Then sink because of partisan wrangling. Plans to eliminate the defined benefit portion of the CSRS and FERS retirement benefit are pushed every year only to fade as Congress gets bogged down in infighting. So do money-saving schemes that would reduce future federal pension benefits by basing annuities on the employees highest five-year salary, instead of the current high-three. Yet they never prevail.

Some people credit/blame Congress’ failure to take federal pay and benefits in hand on the power of unions. But others say the real friend of feds is divided government. It produces the odd shutdown (for which employees get paid) from time to time. And furloughs when workers didn’t get paid. But they are rare events. So far…

This year, Republicans controlled the House and Democrats held the White House. And almost nothing happened, which many people said was bad. But a funny (as in unexpected) thing happened in November. Voters (at least those in the states whose electoral votes counted) picked Donald Trump who was just about every experts underdog. They also gave control of the House and the Senate. Effective in a few weeks. And at least until the next mid-term election in two years.

So we are about to see what life is like in a parliamentary democracy (like the United Kingdom) where the executive and legislative branch re controlled by members of the same political party. It might make a big difference. Or it might not.

But until things become clear (if they ever do) hold on to your hats. And wallets and TSP accounts.

Wouldn’t it be ironic if long-time opponents of divided government long for the good old days of gridlock?

Ironic, for sure. But not necessarily a good thing for you and your job.

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