Gov Career

By Phil Piemonte

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Will 2012 be the year feds flex their political muscles?

As the year winds down, Congress—at this moment in time—seems to be frozen in a state of suspended animation. The House won’t budge. Neither will the Senate.

The issue this time is the payroll tax cut extension. The extension, as well as a number of other measures, were rolled up together into a piece of compromise legislation that days ago seemed ready to pass. But it was not to be. New opposition to the compromise appeared at the last minute, and as a result, most legislators now are at home in their districts sipping hot toddies.

Even though congressional lawmakers appear to have their hands off the levers for a few weeks, most federal employees probably continue to suffer through the holidays with a now-familiar level of anxiety. Because they know that while legislators have not yet crafted a bill containing a pay freeze extension that can pass muster in both the House and Senate, more such legislation will appear in the future.

Of course, a pay freeze extension is perhaps the least of it. Other, longer-term provisions that are likely to continue to creep into new legislation include measures to dump the annuity supplement for feds who are not subject to early retirement requirements, measures to implement very deep workforce cuts, and measures to restructure or reinvent federal retirement systems in ways that are not particularly beneficial to current and/or future employees.

While these measures often face an uphill battle when they are introduced as stand-alone legislation, they often also are included as part of larger, more complicated bills, some parts of which may have broad-based support.

Witness the bill that culminated in the standoff cited above. The House passed that bill, H.R. 3630, earlier this month. The bill extended the expiring payroll tax cut, but it also contained what amounted to a chamber of horrors for employee pay and benefits.

Luckily for feds, the Senate refused to support the bill. With Congress racing against the clock as the end of the year approached, the provisions harmful to feds were stripped from a subsequent short-term House-Senate compromise, which in turn later was snubbed by House leaders. At this writing, Congress remains at a stalemate.

But federal employee advocates worry that one or more of these harmful measures eventually could make it into the “right” bill—one that contains enough prizes for both parties, and/or which would be politically useful in securing the support of a broad part of the electorate later on.

When the stakes are thus elevated, horse-trading often ensues. And feds continue to fear, with good reason, that they may end up being the horse that gets traded.

Congress has kept federal unions and employee groups busy trying to head off such situations. The Federal Workers Alliance, for example, which is a coalition of 22 labor unions, has activated an effort among feds to “tell Congress you’re not a political bargaining chip.”

Such groups are trying to remind feds that there is strength in numbers, particularly if those numbers translate into prospective voters when November rolls around. A handful of phone calls, emails or letters to a lawmaker won’t do much good, but when they arrive in the thousands, they get noticed.

A quick Internet search shows that the numbers are significant: There are about 2 million civilian feds, and a half million or so postal workers. There are also 1.4 million military service members who face some of the same issues related to pay and benefits, as well as some unique to the armed forces. Add in millions more federal and military retirees and spouses, and that is a lot of people—enough for feds to flex significant political muscle if they make themselves heard.

This year has not been a great one for federal employees, and plenty of people believe 2012 is going to be worse. But the current political environment got where it is in part through anti-government grassroots activism. As a group, feds seem to have enough critical mass to launch their own grassroots offensive -- to defend their jobs, pay and benefits simply by reminding policymakers that they too go to the polls.

The question is: Will 2012 be the year they do it?

Posted by Phil Piemonte on Dec 22, 2011 at 4:02 PM

Reader comments

Tue, Jan 17, 2012 RicknATL Atlanta

What those in office should remember is that not only are they encurring the wrath of current federal employees, there are tens of millions more retired federal employees who feel the same way.

Thu, Jan 12, 2012

This analysis of our ability to mount a federal workforce "grassroots initiative" is much too simplistic. The problem with this approach is that it reduces our vote to "single issue focus". As a conservative, should I vote for a pro-abortion, anti-military liberal politician just because he or she is on the right side of the civil service pay freeze issue? I don't vote single issue, even when it impacts my paycheck. As a 35 year plus civil servant, I need to vote responsibly based on the full range of issues.

Wed, Jan 11, 2012

I have already started on my plan. I will NOT vote for a single incumbent, not one, local or otherwise! If I see an independent, I will likely vote for them, if it doesn't violate rule one. It's time to flush, I know we can't get them all but I am sure we can get their attention. I find the whole payroll tax cut issue disheartening. This "Tax Cut" is a reduction in the money that goes to Social Security. Anyone on the FERS plan and any citizen should reject this "Tax Cut" it costs you a lot more later. A real tax cut would be in the income tax, not the payroll tax. I find it interesting that the republicans think it is fair for Gov Employees (about 2 million of us) should pay for this with a pay freeze that also effects our retirement, rather than those who make a million dollars a year and likely won't need SS anyway. Don't get me wrong, I don't think that just because you make a lot of money you should pay for everything, I just think we need to look at what we are getting and fairly balance our spending with our income.

Tue, Jan 10, 2012

I agree with USA. We all need to stop complaining about what Congress is trying to do to our benefits and pay and band together and actively fight these idiotic proposals!! I have joined NARFE and have sent out numerous letters and signed their letters to my representatives. The trouble is it takes effort and time to do these things and we all seem to busy to bother or think it is a waste of time because it won't make any difference anyway. Maybe so, but it you don't at least try than you can't complain about the results!! I would ask everyone to get involved and fight!!!!!!!!!! Don't let Congress run rough shod over everything you have worked for all these years!!!Fight back, do something, get involved!!!!! That goes for retirees as well as active employees!!! Also, stay informed of the issues through these Gov. websites!!

Tue, Jan 10, 2012

100K is a great paycheck. Your private sector associates are just greedy. It's America's number 1 problem and it's taking us down. Always wanting more than your neighbor, taking more than a fair share. So called entitlements, the geme geme geme I deserve it attitude all you have. You're gonna get what you deserve along with all america. Just because a revolt hasn't happened in this country doesn't mean it won't. Push people around enough and it will happen. Then it will be too late. We will be america the losers instead of america the great.

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