‘You should be outraged,’ Cardin says of federal pay and benefits proposals

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Federal employees avoided a series of cuts to their retirement with last week’s House vote on the Senate’s version of the 2018 budget resolution.

That action means federal employees won’t face the possibility of $32 billion in cuts over 10 years to the current federal retirement system. But it doesn’t mean that the federal workforce is completely in the clear.

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As lawmakers decide how to pay for new tax policies, which they’re expected to introduce later this week, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) has his eye — again — on possible cost-cutting proposals that may impact federal employees.

“We know that there’s a big hole in their tax proposal that’s going to add to the deficit, and there’s going to be more and more pressure to cut spending in order to pay for these tax cuts that go primarily to wealthy people,” Cardin told Federal News Radio. “When you talk about how you pay for it, the federal workforce always seems to be on the list.”

The details are still unclear, but House lawmakers are discussing possible cuts to the maximum amount of pre-tax money workers can contribute to their 401(k)s, including the Thrift Savings Plan.

Currently, employees can contribute as much as $18,000 to a 401(k) style plan like the TSP. The Internal Revenue Service announced last week maximum contributions would go up $500 in 2018, to $18,500.

Some Republicans like House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Texas) see this proposal as one of many ways to offset a $6 trillion tax plan, which includes lowering the corporate tax rate and reducing the number of tax brackets.

But Cardin said changes to the current 401(k) structure would hurt both public and private sector employees.

“It’ll make it more difficult for people to save for their retirement, putting more pressure on Social Security and more pressure, quite frankly, on government programs,” Cardin said Monday during a town hall with National Institute of Standards and Technology employees. “Second, it’s a timing issue. It doesn’t raise any revenue; it just changes when you collect the revenue, so you’ll be digging an even deeper deficit in the out-years. I think there’s enough Republicans in the Senate to make it a non-starter. I don’t think that’s going to end up in the Senate bill.”

House Republicans are expected to release their tax plan Wednesday, Cardin said. The House Ways and Means Committee is scheduled to mark up the bill the following week, as the Senate begins work on its own version. The Senate may mark up its bill before the Thanksgiving break, Cardin said.

Cardin tackled a wide variety of questions from NIST employees, which ranged from his opinions on the role of federal science and research to short-term continuing resolution and the budget process. Several NIST employees said they were concerned about recent dialogue calling for federal employees to contribute more toward their pensions.

Cardin encouraged employees to make their concerns known.

“It’s important to put a face on it,” he said. “You should be out there in your individual capacities … to let people know that you’re human, that you have normal needs and that one of the reasons that you thought you were taking a career in public service is that you thought there would be at least some stability in public service. Now you’re finding it would be safer being in the private sector than the public sector as far job security [goes]. That’s ridiculous. Be a little outraged. You should be a little outraged. I am.”

Cardin said he would fight and resist proposals that targeted federal employee pay and benefits and promised to speak out against them in the Democratic Caucus and on the Senate floor.

During his visit to NIST, Cardin toured the National Cybersecurity Center of Excellence and heard about NIST’s crumbling infrastructure and leaking roof from the agency’s director, Walter Copan.

Cardin recognized employees’ frustration with the ongoing slew of continuing resolutions and acknowledged that Congress could do more to support NIST’s mission.

“You may not be getting the support you need to make the tremendous progress you know you could make if you had the support and you didn’t have to spend so much time trying to defend what you’re doing,” he said. “You might be able to do more. If you’re not there at your post working, the vulnerabilities are much greater, that we could lose this capacity forever, or at least for a generation. What you’re doing today is more important than ever before.”

But one NIST employee, at least, has been approaching this year with more optimism.

“I don’t feel particularly secure,” one NIST employee said to applause from the crowd. “My attitude around January was, ‘Well, this might be the last year I get to do science, so I’m going to try to do some good science this year.’ It’s really about the service. It’s not, for me, about the security. It’s about just knowing that everyday when I come here, I do something worthwhile.”