Gov Careers

By Phil Piemonte

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Will 2012 be the year feds flex their political muscles?

As the year winds down, Congress—at this moment in time—seems to be frozen in a state of suspended animation. The House won’t budge. Neither will the Senate.

The issue this time is the payroll tax cut extension. The extension, as well as a number of other measures, were rolled up together into a piece of compromise legislation that days ago seemed ready to pass. But it was not to be. New opposition to the compromise appeared at the last minute, and as a result, most legislators now are at home in their districts sipping hot toddies.

Even though congressional lawmakers appear to have their hands off the levers for a few weeks, most federal employees probably continue to suffer through the holidays with a now-familiar level of anxiety. Because they know that while legislators have not yet crafted a bill containing a pay freeze extension that can pass muster in both the House and Senate, more such legislation will appear in the future.

Of course, a pay freeze extension is perhaps the least of it. Other, longer-term provisions that are likely to continue to creep into new legislation include measures to dump the annuity supplement for feds who are not subject to early retirement requirements, measures to implement very deep workforce cuts, and measures to restructure or reinvent federal retirement systems in ways that are not particularly beneficial to current and/or future employees.

While these measures often face an uphill battle when they are introduced as stand-alone legislation, they often also are included as part of larger, more complicated bills, some parts of which may have broad-based support.

Witness the bill that culminated in the standoff cited above. The House passed that bill, H.R. 3630, earlier this month. The bill extended the expiring payroll tax cut, but it also contained what amounted to a chamber of horrors for employee pay and benefits.

Luckily for feds, the Senate refused to support the bill. With Congress racing against the clock as the end of the year approached, the provisions harmful to feds were stripped from a subsequent short-term House-Senate compromise, which in turn later was snubbed by House leaders. At this writing, Congress remains at a stalemate.

But federal employee advocates worry that one or more of these harmful measures eventually could make it into the “right” bill—one that contains enough prizes for both parties, and/or which would be politically useful in securing the support of a broad part of the electorate later on.

When the stakes are thus elevated, horse-trading often ensues. And feds continue to fear, with good reason, that they may end up being the horse that gets traded.

Congress has kept federal unions and employee groups busy trying to head off such situations. The Federal Workers Alliance, for example, which is a coalition of 22 labor unions, has activated an effort among feds to “tell Congress you’re not a political bargaining chip.”

Such groups are trying to remind feds that there is strength in numbers, particularly if those numbers translate into prospective voters when November rolls around. A handful of phone calls, emails or letters to a lawmaker won’t do much good, but when they arrive in the thousands, they get noticed.

A quick Internet search shows that the numbers are significant: There are about 2 million civilian feds, and a half million or so postal workers. There are also 1.4 million military service members who face some of the same issues related to pay and benefits, as well as some unique to the armed forces. Add in millions more federal and military retirees and spouses, and that is a lot of people—enough for feds to flex significant political muscle if they make themselves heard.

This year has not been a great one for federal employees, and plenty of people believe 2012 is going to be worse. But the current political environment got where it is in part through anti-government grassroots activism. As a group, feds seem to have enough critical mass to launch their own grassroots offensive -- to defend their jobs, pay and benefits simply by reminding policymakers that they too go to the polls.

The question is: Will 2012 be the year they do it?

Posted by Phil Piemonte on Dec 22, 2011 at 12:13 PM


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