Supercommittee fails: What's next for feds?


Federal employees might naturally worry about sequestration, the across-the-board discretionary spending cuts triggered when the special Congressional committee set up to find more deliberately-chosen cuts gave up hope of reaching agreement.

The failure muddles the picture for feds, who have already been the target of some budget-cutting measures, including a two-year pay freeze imposed earlier this year. 

The so-called supercommittee called it quits Nov. 21 after two months of trying to agree on a plan that would cut $1.2 trillion from the federal deficit. Disagreement on the size and makeup of tax increases and spending cuts have been blamed as the main reason that led to the panel’s defeat.

“After months of hard work and intense deliberations, we have come to the conclusion today that it will not be possible to make any bipartisan agreement available to the public before the committee’s deadline,” the committee’s co-chairmen, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wa.) and Rep. Jeb Hensarling R-Texas), said in a statement.

The failure to reach a deal will now trigger a process called sequestration -- automatic spending cuts across defense and domestic programs, including Medicare, with the start of January 2013.

Disappointment over the supercommittee’s failure reverberated throughout Washington, from the highest echelons of the executive branch to organizations that represent the interests of the federal workforce. President Barack Obama said the Republicans’ refusal to compromise was “the main stumbling block” that prevented Congress from reaching a deal to further slash the deficit. After the supercommittee announced it had failed, some lawmakers began immediately working on legislation to modify the sequestration process.

The president also vowed he would veto any effort to get rid of the automatic spending cuts, and urged both sides of Congress to find a middle ground.

“The only way these spending cuts will not take place is if Congress gets back to work and agrees on a balanced plan to reduce the deficit by at least $1.2 trillion,” he said. “That’s exactly what they need to do. That’s the job they promised to do. And they've still got a year to figure it out.”

The sweeping spending cuts to agency budgets will not only affect federal employees but all Americans, Patricia Niehaus, president of the Federal Managers Association National, said in a statement.
“There is no doubt that if the sequestration process moves forward as intended, not only will federal employees be facing the prospect of furloughs and layoffs, but the taxpayers who rely on needed government services will be left without anywhere to turn,” she said.

John Palguta, vice president of policy at the Partnership for Public Service, said he believed the sequestration process would be modified because research has shown that across-the-board cuts throughout government rarely work well.

“With across-the-board cuts, I can assure you, there will be unintended consequences and unacceptable outcomes,” he warned.

Issues such as extended pay freezes and reduced benefits for federal employees could potentially be brought to the table under the sequestration process, Palguta said. But if cuts such as those were imposed, federal employees should be careful not to react too fast, without knowing the full details of the new circumstances, he added.

“If something looks like it’s about to be imposed, make sure you understand exactly what’s entailed,” Palguta said. “If someone is thinking now it’s the time to leave government, I wouldn’t jump ship prematurely. There will be plenty of advance notice – it’s not going to be happening next week.  You’ll have plenty of notice, and you’ll have a chance to adjust your personal plans accordingly.”

The tougher part for agencies will not be what will happen in terms of payer benefits but changes to the work environment, he said. In some organizations, workload will increase without the extra resources that are needed. A slowdown in hiring or no hiring at all are also possible drawbacks under the sequestration process.

“Those are going to be the hardest parts for an agency to deal with because despite what is the public perception, most federal employees are working very hard right now and there is not a whole lot of free time to slack,” Palguta said.

About the Author

Camille Tuutti is a former FCW staff writer who covered federal oversight and the workforce.


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