By Phil Piemonte
Trying to boil down readers’ reactions to the recent spate of legislation calling for pay freeze extensions and cutbacks on federal retirement benefits might be best expressed by a quote frequently uttered by Popeye the Sailor (right before he blew his top) …
“I’s had all’s I can stands, and I can’t stands no more!”
Just in case you need a review, let’s take a quick look back at the last seven days or so.
There was the introduction of the Down Payment to Protect National Security Act, which uses an extension of the federal pay freeze until June 2014—and a 5 percent cut in the number of civilian feds through attrition—to avoid billions of dollars in defense budget cuts.
Then there’s the debut of the Honest Budget Act, which would forbid periodic step increases from the date of the bill’s enactment until the end of 2012.
And of course, a House committee a few days ago approved the Securing Annuities for Federal Employees Act, which starting in 2013 would change the employee share of contributions to retirement, introduce a high-five formula for the pension calculations of new employees, and eliminate the FERS supplement in cases of early, non-mandatory retirement.
Plus, just for good measure, the SAFE Act also was inserted this week into the American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act. Reason: So those savings from cutbacks to federal retirement benefits can be used to pay for transportation projects.
And maybe more we’ve just forgotten about.
But you get the picture: Even though all of these things are still proposals, they’ve given feds plenty enough to worry about. And all feds’ eyes are on Congress to see what members will come up with next.
Of course, not all members of Congress are looking to stick it to feds. Federal employees do have their outspoken champions, a lot of them lawmakers who represent fed-heavy districts in and around the national capital. Unfortunately for feds, these folks are in the minority just now in the House, where the bulk of this stuff is being hatched.
While a lot of people who make a living watching these developments believe that most of these legislative measures will meet resistance in the Senate and from the White House, at this point, who really knows anymore?
Feds might take some comfort—somewhat cold comfort—in the fact that lawmakers often over-demand—asking for everything in hopes that they will succeed in getting some small piece of it. Moreover, when legislators do get their way on that 50 percent—or even less—of what they asked for, that makes it look like a compromise.
Also keep in mind that every House seat is up for election this fall. Politicians tend to behave in an agitated fashion in election years. Perhaps more so in presidential election years. Legislative initiatives get inflated by campaign-year bluster (in addition to the regular, run-of-the-mill bluster).
The bottom line, if there is one: Don’t be surprised if you see more of the same stuff coming down the pike in the weeks and months ahead.
And remember to eat your spinach.
Posted on Feb 10, 2012 at 12:12 PM37 comments
“When are members of Congress going to cut their own benefits?!?”
That has to be just about the favorite rant on this blog.
Well, this month, a bunch of House lawmakers – a half dozen in fact – reminded us that they want to do just that. Or at least give the appearance of wanting to.
A whole passel of them—or rather, a panel of them—provided testimony on how their retirement benefits should be cut or restricted, and hyped bills they have proposed that would do those things. They did it at a Jan. 26 hearing on the federal retirement system held by House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform federal workforce subcommittee.
If you want to take a look at what they had to say, click on any of the lawmakers’ names below to pull up their testimony:
Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.)
Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.)
Rep. Robert J. Dold (R-Ill.)
Rep. Tim Griffin (R-Ark.)
Rep. Richard B. Nugent (R-Fla.)
Rep. Robert T. Schilling (R-Ill.)
Some of the lawmakers seem to think their measures are just common sense. But then some may not need a federal retirement, or even a salary. Others, on the other hand, while they want reforms, do want to grandfather long-timers.
And one, to make his point from the git-go, has named his bill the Congress is Not a Career Act (H.R. 981).
The catch with some of these bills in which members of Congress target themselves is that although the sponsor or sponsors offer to bite the bullet on retirement, they also want the entire federal workforce to bite that bullet, too. The Securing Annuities for Federal Employees (SAFE) Act (H.R.3813), introduced Jan. 24 by Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.), is one of those bills.
Luckily, feds can take comfort in the fact that most bills that are introduced in Congress never make it very far. And some of the bills cited above have been around for a while, or are retreads of earlier efforts. A person might even posit that a secondary—or perhaps even primary—motivation behind some of this legislation is its PR value back home.
Nonetheless, many who represent the interests of federal employees probably would agree with Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), who told The Washington Post that he believes that the real GOP agenda behind these bills is to use them as a “portal” into cutting back retirement benefits for the whole federal workforce.
So, if you are asking the question, “When are members of Congress are going to cut their own benefits?”
Maybe the answer is: “Be careful what you wish for.”
Posted on Jan 27, 2012 at 1:42 PM15 comments
Congressional leaders are sharpening their budget axes, and gearing up to take another look at federal pay and benefits.
Advocates of a smaller, leaner federal workforce will try once more to make the case that the government cannot afford you, and that the only way to fix this is to downsize the workforce, freeze or reduce pay, and trim benefits.
A few of them will imply—or state outright—that the government needs to do these things also because federal workers are inefficient, overcompensated and too many in number for the work they perform.
A lot of this sentiment has been drifting down to the public over the past year or so, inciting Joe Sixpack to start railing against federal workers.
But luckily, John Q. Public generally knows better—as evidenced by American Customer Satisfaction Index results released this week. According to those results, Americans were more satisfied with services provided by the federal government in 2011 than they were a year earlier.
ACSI, a self-professed “national economic indicator of customer evaluations of the quality of products and services available to household consumers in the United States,” says its research results show that citizen satisfaction with federal government services is up 2.3 percent to 66.9 (on a scale of 100) for 2011, after several years of decline.
Ratings vary within the government, of course. According to ASCI, the Defense Department scored a 76 and the Interior Department a 74, versus the Departments of Homeland Security and Treasury at 59 and 57, respectively. ACSI results also indicate that departments and agencies that deliver benefits have higher scores in general than agencies with regulatory missions.
We could list other findings here, but ACSI has posted the materials online, so you can click through to their site if you want to take a closer look.
But for our purposes here, it’s probably better to cut to the chase, as would Prof. Warwick (“please don’t call me ‘Dr.’”) Blood, who currently teaches communication research methods, public opinion research and other subjects at the University of Canberra, and who was often heard to remark in class:
“Any mug can come up with a number! What does it mean?”
In terms of these particular research findings, ACSI founder Claes Fornell answers that question quite well:
“While people generally distrust federal government as a whole, they are much more positive towards the job that individual agencies are performing. Paradoxically perhaps, these findings suggest that the more people come into contact with government service, the more they actually like it. The lack of trust has much more to do with politicians than it does with federal workers and the services of the federal government.”
Posted on Jan 20, 2012 at 11:46 AM14 comments
Pity the Transportation Security Administration, having to devote time and effort (paid for, as some would be sure to point out, with taxpayer dollars) to defend a recent decision to forbid a cupcake from being taken past an airport screening check-point.
But that is what the agency was compelled to do after the media picked up the story of the confiscated cake this week, and the incident quickly devolved into Cupcakegate.
But as a post on TSA’s blog points out, this cupcake was a cupcake in name only.
As evidence, the agency posted on its blog site a photo of what most people think of as a cupcake, and a photo of what actually was confiscated—a “cupcake in a jar” that more closely resembles one of those premixed jars of peanut butter and jelly that groceries sell to lazy PBJ-makers.
As the blog post explains, the large amount of icing (which qualifies as a gel under TSA guidelines) in the jar appeared to exceed the 3.4-oz. limit, so the item was confiscated.
Simple enough. The blog admits that the incident “may seem like a silly move to many of our critics...” But it also notes that “when we can’t be exactly sure of what something is, every officer has the discretion to not allow it on the plane.” In other words, screeners should err on the side of caution. That is what they are trained to do.
We’ve been through a few airports lately, and we have to say that screeners have for the most part have been reasonable. And this is coming from someone who has had bars of his Trader Joe’s fair-trade dark chocolate dug out of a carry-on and swabbed for explosives.
Sounds ridiculous, right? Not entirely. Explosive chocolate bars are nothing new. They debuted almost 70 years ago. The Germans equipped saboteurs with explosives masquerading as bars of chocolate during World War II. Exploding cupcakes? Sure, why not?
So, look. Anyone who travels with any regularity eventually pays the price for today’s security, whether it’s a pat-down, a hand-search of a bag, or confiscation of an item. That’s just the way of modern air travel.
And though it’s inconvenient and sometimes irritating, it’s a necessary evil—like dental work. Feds do a lot of that kind of work—jobs that need to be done whether everyone likes it or not.
With a little luck, maybe more members of the citizens they serve will figure that out.
Posted on Jan 10, 2012 at 12:34 PM26 comments