Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory

On Jan. 11th, in this very space, I did a rare thing in the news business: I reported a good-news item related to federal workers. I said there was light at the end of the tunnel. That feds have friends in high places who will end the pay freeze and work for a decent raise in 2013.

Sorry about that.

I’d like to withdraw that column. Or at least file it away for another year. Or two or three.

Again, sorry about that. It must have been something I ate. Or drank.


The column said that you had powerful, influential friends in Congress. Which is true. But it went on to say that those people, key Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate, were likely to revive the coalition set up during the Clinton and Bush administrations. During those years Democrats led the charge to get feds bigger raises than those proposed by President Bill Clinton. When George W. Bush was in power, Republicans ran interference often winning bigger pay hikes for feds.

But that was then. This, is now.

When President Obama proposed a modest 0.5 percent 2013 pay raise for federal workers, groups that would normally have been outraged expressed disappointment. Unions that supported President Obama’s election said that feds have permanently given up millions of dollars in lost wages. But that the 0.5 percent raise is a start.

Politicians — even in districts with lots of federal workers — said the 0.5 percent, while certainly not enough, was a good thing really. At least it is a raise — albeit a small one — not a continuation of the two-year pay freeze.

A former union official said “union leaders are boiling, in private. But they’re not about to tangle with an otherwise friendly administration in an election year.” He said they would definitely not, as they have in the past, argue for pay-raise parity with the military. Under the president’s budget, uniformed military personnel would get a 1.6 percent increase next January.

He said I did get one thing right in the friends-in-high-places column. It was the next to last paragraph which said: “Nobody at this stage knows what the 2013 raise will be. Or if there will be a civilian pay hike in 2013. But the fact that the White House proposed one — even one that will give the average feds less than $400 more a year — is viewed by some as a sort-of positive.”

Reality check

So what is going to happen to federal workers and retirees this year? Will feds have to pay more of their retirement. See their pay freeze extended? Have to pay a bigger chunk of their health premiums? What’s next?

At 10 a.m. EST today on our For Your Benefit radio show, host and CPA Bob Leins will be joined by benefits expert John Elliott. And me. We’ll try to figure out what’s coming up from buyouts to the TSP. If you have questions you can email me at


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