The great downsizing has begun

Who out there thinks they will recognize the federal workforce a year from now?

Who out there thinks they will recognize the federal workforce a year from now?

As agencies scramble to come to terms with impending budget cuts in the next fiscal year, offers for early-outs and buyouts have begun to pop up. This week alone, both the Education Department and the Government Accountability Office have announced their intention to offer early-outs and cash incentives.

With fiscal pressures mounting, it’s not unreasonable to expect more offers to emerge in the weeks and months ahead. And given the antipathy shown toward feds by many in this Congress, it’s a fair guess that plenty of feds are ready to take those offers.

The biggest downsizing news to hit in the last few days, of course, belongs to the U.S. Postal Service, which wants Congress to let it void no-layoff provisions in its union contacts so it can get rid of 120,000 more employees by 2015 than it would lose through projected attrition.

USPS also is seeking permission to pull its employees out of the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, as well as get them out of the federal government’s retirement systems. USPS asserts that it can do a better job running those programs for its employees.

Perhaps it can. But we were more intrigued by a phrase that appeared consistently throughout two white papers USPS sent to lawmakers suggesting the changes. The phrase may hold a clue as to how things will proceed — in a broader sense — from this point forward. The papers frequently cite “the private-sector comparability standard.”

For example: “The Postal Service does not believe that FEHB meets the private-sector comparability standard…a legislative change that allows the Postal Service to establish its own health benefits program would allow the Postal Service to fully incorporate private-sector best practices, saving money while also providing comparable benefits to employees.” In almost identical words, USPS makes the same case for exiting the two federal retirement programs.

As most people know, neither private-sector health care plans nor private-sector retirement plans — generally speaking — provide benefits as generous as those available under the federal programs. So what the Postal Service is really suggesting is that if a benefit is better than what most people get out there in the private sector, it has got to go.

Of course, the Postal Service is, in fact, a different animal. Even though it entrusted with providing universal service, it nonetheless really is supposed to operate more like a private-sector business.

But we also know how this Congress thinks. It puts a lot of stock in the idea of “private-sector comparability.” Many in Congress, one way or another, will continue to try to eliminate, trim or otherwise alter now-generous federal benefits — at the Postal Service or elsewhere in the government — to get them in line with what’s available in the private sector. For better or for worse.

If that happens, and the economy manages to get back on its feet, not only will more feds head out the door, but many prospective feds won’t come in that door in the first place.

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