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How the new Congress will get tough on feds

Nov. 7, 2010 - 04:18PM   |  
By SEAN REILLY   |   Comments
Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) has called for rolling back federal discretionary spending - excluding programs affecting national security, veterans and seniors - to fiscal 2008 levels as a way of saving about $100 billion the first year.
Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) has called for rolling back federal discretionary spending - excluding programs affecting national security, veterans and seniors - to fiscal 2008 levels as a way of saving about $100 billion the first year. (Zaid Hamid / Gannett)

In their battle to retake control of Congress, Republicans campaigned against a federal government they say has become too big and intrusive. After winning back the House in last week's elections, the GOP will soon be in a position to try to tighten the reins.

Here are a half-dozen ways federal employees could feel the pressure:

Budget cuts: Rep. John Boehner, an Ohio Republican set to become the next House speaker, has called for rolling back federal discretionary spending excluding programs affecting national security, veterans and seniors to fiscal 2008 levels as a way of saving about $100 billion the first year. Everything else would take a cumulative 21 percent hit, according to one think tank's analysis.

Jobs: In their "Pledge to America," House Republicans call for a net hiring freeze for the "non-security" federal work force. Other GOP proposals seek to shrink government ranks by attrition or by limiting the number of new hires.

Pay: The election results further cloud the prospects for President Obama's proposed 1.4 percent pay raise for federal civilian workers in 2011. Earlier this year, Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and John McCain, R-Ariz., tried unsuccessfully to impose a one-year freeze on salaries.

Furloughs: A bill introduced in September by Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., would require most federal employees to take two weeks of unpaid leave in fiscal 2011.

Heightened scrutiny: "There's going to be a lot more oversight of the cost of federal employees," said Brian Riedl, a budget analyst at the Heritage Foundation think tank, which has been a leading critic of federal pay practices. In that vein, Riedl said, everything from salaries to travel costs "could be serious candidates for reform."

A government shutdown: Top Republicans say they don't want a rerun of the 1995-96 closures that idled non-essential federal services for about a month and were widely seen as a public relations debacle for the party. But some independent experts see a shutdown as likely. One flash point could be the next vote to raise the federal debt ceiling, which is expected this spring. But one analyst predicted a showdown possibly as early as next month, as lawmakers seek to wrap up work on appropriations bills for fiscal 2011, which began Oct. 1.

"I think it's 50/50 you get a shutdown in December," said Stan Collender, a budget expert at Qorvis Communications.

Republicans' power will be limited. Although the GOP will have a hefty House majority in the 112th Congress that takes office in January, the Senate will remain in Democratic hands and President Obama has another two years left in his term.

And even among Republican lawmakers, the amount of traction for various cost-cutting moves is unclear. Coffman's furlough bill, for example, has just one co-sponsor.

Increasingly, however, federal employees could face pressure to share in the economic pain afflicting the rest of the country.

"You're going to see the same things that happened at the state level happening at the federal level," said Paul Posner, a former Government Accountability Office official who teaches at George Mason University.

Last year, at least 30 states turned to furloughs or layoffs to cut costs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Republicans, still reveling in their election-day triumphs, have so far had little to say about specific spending targets. The first clues could come next week, when lawmakers regroup for a lame-duck session. High on the list of unfinished business is the fate of the dozen fiscal 2011 appropriations bills.

Congress has so far not given final approval to any of them; in the meantime, federal agencies are operating under a continuing resolution that generally leaves spending levels at fiscal 2010 thresholds.

That resolution expires in early December. Although Democrats have not announced how they'll proceed, one route would be to combine the bills into a catch-all omnibus measure and pass it before going home for the year. Otherwise, they would likely have to pass another continuing resolution running into next year and leave the job to the next Congress.

Pressure on contractors

Besides agencies, contractors would also face complications, according to the Professional Services Council, an industry trade group. "How Congress will respond to the continuing resolution will say how much money is available to the federal agencies and how much is available for both internal employees and contractors," said Alan Chvotkin, the group's executive vice president and counsel.

For Republicans, the pressure to cut spending will be greater next year, when Obama unveils his fiscal 2012 budget request. So far, however, Boehner and other Republicans have offered few details on what they want to ax. If national security and veterans programs are exempted from the 2008 rollback target, according to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, another think tank, Boehner's plan would require immediate cuts of $101 billion, or 21 percent, compared with fiscal 2010 spending levels.

"It's hard to imagine having a cut anywhere near this size that isn't going to put enormous pressure on the federal work force," said co-author James Horney, director of federal fiscal policy at the center, when asked whether layoffs would be needed.

Rollback on administration initiatives

Any such legislation would likely stall in the Senate or face a White House veto. Regardless, the Obama administration could find it harder to get money for favored initiatives.

For example, advocates will have a tougher time convincing a divided Congress to fund green government initiatives, said Tom Jensen, a former Senate staffer and senior official in the Clinton administration's Council on Environmental Quality.

Economic and national security issues will become more important, Jensen said, so agencies will have to demonstrate the cost and fuel savings associated with any initiatives.

"Agencies will need to demonstrate in [their] budget requests that the costs associated with sustainability [are] worth the investment," Jensen said.

Along the same lines, he added, agencies will have to convince the new House leadership that shrinking the federal government's carbon footprint will shrink costs and lead to a more efficient government.

On the plus side, agencies have laid out detailed plans for reducing emissions over the next 10 years, and the plans don't call for extra appropriations.

amedici@federaltimes.com?subject=Reader Question">Andy Medici contributed to this report.

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