Hurray, public servants! Here’s our plan for cuts

I guess the timing could have been worse. But it’s hard to see how. The first day of Public Service Recognition week? That’s when the Office of Personnel Management released its proposals to cut back federal retirement bennies.

The specific ideas aren’t new. This time it’s the Trump administration proposing them. Strictly speaking, they’re not  reductions in benefits. They’re more reformulations. But they’ll result in lower future annuities. Plus if the employee pension contributions start to rise, it will feel like less take-home pay.

Here’s the salient statistic: OPM estimates the, er, changes will save $145 billion over 10 years.

In hinting at what might be in store, OPM Director Jeff Pon promised the administration would work with the unions. But this was mainly as a means of informing them, and ensuring everyone would have the same data. And, in that call with reporters, he all but showed his cards with respect to retirement. Now he has shown them.

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Employer-funded, defined benefit retirement plans are fast going the way of the snail darter. The alternative is “defined contribution.” For millions and millions of people, the definition is circumscribed by Social Security taxes and what they feel is left for 401(k)s.  Even the retirement experts say you gotta live a little … while you’re living.

So should federal employees step into the same boat as private-sector people? I don’t know, but it’s a debate we’re going to have. The unions frame their answer by comparing the to-be state with what their members have now. Good for them. That’s what unions dues payers have a right to expect. But people have other ways to look at the retirement question. For example: Starting from scratch, what would a system look like that’s contemporary, affordable and competitive?

But, golly nibs, why re-launch a contentious discussion precisely during the few days during which we’re supposed to be honoring public service? It’s like choosing the middle of Thanksgiving dinner to remind grandpa of his upcoming gastroenterology look-see.

Shrewd leaders sense the timing and tone of their messages. There’s an old Army joke. A drill sergeant has been crass in delivering to his recruits the occasional piece of bad news from home. The training supervisor pulls him aside, counseling to be a touch more sensitive. Next morning, the sergeant barks, “All those with living mothers, to your feet! Jones, stay seated!”

The administration’s pension proposals occur within a much larger context. The President’s Management Agenda has more provisions for the workforce, including a refreshed emphasis on training. It also stresses pay realignment and elimination of low-value work. There’ll be lots to talk about.

Congress is just getting back for a marathon three-week session before Memorial Day. It likely won’t get around to the OPM proposals right away. This one could have waited a few days.