Lawmakers, who face a self-imposed Friday deadline to come up with a fiscal 2014 budget plan, appear to be making progress toward a limited deal that would stave off another shutdown and give agencies the certainty of funding for the remainder of the year.
But lawmakers with districts surrounding Washington, D.C., are preemptively speaking out against any proposal that, in the words of Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), would “throw federal employees under the bus.”
According to the latest developments, Rep. Paul (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D- Wash.) are nearing a deal to replace some of the sequestration cuts over the next two years. As it currently stands, the measure would add increased discretionary funding for fiscal 2014 from $967 billion to about $1.07 trillion — with the added $40 billion being split evenly between Defense and nondefense spending, according to National Journal’s latest reading of the tea leaves. The topline funding level would increase by another $25 billion in fiscal 2015.
However, still up in the air are potential changes to federal employees’ retirement benefits.
A proposal to require federal employees, who typically contribute 0.8 percent of their salary toward their defined-benefit pensions, to set aside an extra 1.2 percent phased in over three years is reportedly part of the mix. Under the Federal Employees Retirement System, employees also are required to contribute to Social Security and can make voluntary contributions to their 401(k)-style Thrift Savings Plan accounts.
Wolf wrote to Ryan and Murphy last week saying that too often in the past federal employees’ pay and benefits have “been used as pawns in budget negotiations.”
In an interview on In Depth with Francis Rose, Wolf said his letter had a simple message: “Stop picking on federal employees, and stop letting them be the target every time you try to find budget savings,” he explained.
Wolf said federal employees have already sacrificed enough: a three-year pay freeze, sequestration-related furloughs over the summer and the recent government shutdown.
“Every time they come to a budget crunch, the only place they go is with regard to federal employees,” he said. “And you’re talking about FBI agents who are over in Nairobi, who are investigating the bombing of the shopping center there. You have people that were working at the Navy Yard. … You have people at NIH, people who are working on cancer cures. You have all these people who have been hit very, very hard. They’re the one segment that’s been hit over and over and over. And that’s not the place to go now.”
Wolf’s complaint has been echoed from several other lawmakers with large federal- employee constituencies, including Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee and Ben Cardin (D-Md.), who was tasked by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) with apprising the Senate of federal-workforce issues.
In a Dec. 4 letter, Mikulski called on the budget conference committee to reject “draconian proposals” requiring federal employees to cough up more from their paychecks for their retirement benefits.
“Requiring federal employees to pay substantially more for their retirement would again make them the scapegoats of deficit reduction,” Mikulski said.
Cardin requested the Congressional Research Service issue a report on the impacts of recent deficit-reduction efforts on federal employees’ pay and retirement benefits. In addition to extending the pay freeze through the end of 2013 and sequestration-caused furloughs, Congress last year also passed legislation requiring federal workers hired after January 2013 to contribute 3.1 percent of their salary toward their pensions as an offset for a temporary extension of the payroll tax holiday.
Cardin: Don’t use feds as piggybank
But Cardin said after that legislation passed, there was an agreement that “federal workers would not serve as a ‘piggybank’ again, especially for shorter term budget deals,” he wrote in a Dec. 6 letter to Reid and Murray.
“No other group of predominantly middle-class Americans has contributed to deficit reduction the way federal workers have,” the letter stated. “This relentless attack isn’t just devastating to workforce morale; it’s hurting our country and our economy.”
The Congressional Budget Office advised the committee in a report issued last month that hiking feds’ retirement contributions would yield $19 billion over the next decade in increased federal revenue.
The issue has appeal across party lines. The measure being considered by the budget committee — increasing contributions by 1.2 percent over three years — is identical to an idea included in President Barack Obama’s 2014 budget proposal. Meanwhile, House Republicans have approved even stiffer increases in their chamber’s annual spending blueprints.
But Wolf is bucking the trend.
“If the Obama administration wants to throw federal employees under the bus, I don’t agree with them,” Wolf said, adding that Obama risks undermining the federal workforce by supporting the proposal.
“He is the leader of the federal employees,” Wolf said. “He should be their strongest champion. And so the fact that he thinks it’s OK certainly doesn’t raise my comfort level — and I don’t think it raises the comfort level for anybody else. I don’t care who else is for it. This is the wrong place to go.”