NSPS is dead; long live NSPS

A post-Halloween ghost story on coming back from the grave

The fear of premature burial, or being planted in the ground while merely unconscious, has been around for thousands of years. The panic reached a peak during the Victorian era amid widespread publicity about people who were buried, then recovered, but who subsequently died from terror or lack of oxygen.

Which brings us to the “death” of the controversial National Security Personnel System. NSPS was killed off — we’re told — as part of the package of goodies given to federal workers and retirees in the National Defense Authorization Act, which was signed on Oct. 28.

Many people and groups — especially federal unions — rejoiced at the action and immediately wrote obituaries announcing the happy event: that NSPS is to be stopped in its tracks, and that no more Defense civilians will go into it until plans can be drawn up to convert them back to the General Schedule pay system. With 220,000 people currently covered by NSPS, that will take some time.

But there is an escape mechanism in NSPS that few have considered. It provides a six-month window during which backers of a pay-for-performance concept can come up with a new plan — one that Congress and federal unions could buy into. While it is unlikely that such a plan will be drafted, much less approved, it does open up the possibility that something like NSPS — maybe Son of NSPS, using different rules and criteria — might come back to life in another form.

“It is not likely to happen — but, yes, there is a provision in the Defense Act that more or less gives the government six months to come up with Plan B,” said a union lobbyist who asked not to be identified. “There are a lot of people in high places that think the GS system is flawed. We [the unions] are irritated when the NSPS is referred to as ‘pay for performance’ because we already have that in the GS system. But that’s how they picture it, and that’s how they sold it to Congress during the Bush administration.

“Our union thinks NSPS was a Donald Rumsfeld production, and eliminating it, if that is what eventually happens, will be the last of his ‘reforms,’” the lobbyist said.

I mention this because the Obama administration, on the separate federal employees issue of accrued sick leave, has made it very clear that it did not support — and would not support — language to permit Federal Employees Retirement System employees to apply their unused sick leave toward their service computation for retirement purposes. Administration officials say it is too expensive, and they made sure Senate conferees stripped that provision (which had been approved by the House) from the final conference report for the so-called “tobacco bill.”

But the above-cited lobbyist told me that the administration’s opposition to the FERS sick-leave credit was part of a high-level poker game between the White House and federal unions. All of the unions (or their leaders) endorsed and worked for the Obama-Biden ticket, which they have been reluctant to criticize for anything — so far.

The deal, the lobbyist surmised at the time, would be this: The administration would cave on the FERS sick-leave credit (a very, very big deal and a major benefits improvement) if federal unions would mute their criticism of the 2 percent federal pay raise proposed by the White House. The unions (and many of their members) think it is unfair that Congress approved a 3.4 percent raise for military personnel. But the labor honchos stuck with the White House on the 2 percent figure for white-collar federal workers. So the lobbyist was correct: the FERS sick-leave credit went through even after many people — including me — said the plan was dead and buried.

As it turned out, it was buried but not exactly dead.

Clearly somebody heard the sounds from the crypt. Since unearthed, it is now law, and it means that FERS employees retiring between now and Jan. 1, 2014, will get time credit toward retirement for 50 percent of the sick leave they save. After that date, they will get full credit, just like Civil Service Retirement System employees have enjoyed for years.

Armed with that kind of hindsight, it is worth listening to the lobbyist who says that NSPS may appear to be dead, and may really be dead, yet it could be another six months before we find out for sure if it will stay dead or reappear in some other form.

Unlikely? Yes. But this has been a very strange (and very good) year for feds and retirees, with lots of surprises. Old ghosts and dead bills managed to get revived. So this one may not be over until, as they say, the last full breath.

About the Author

Mike Causey is a columnist for the Federal Employees News Digest.

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