Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., has introduced a bill that would require most federal employees to take two weeks of furlough in 2012. (Office of Rep. Mike Coffman)
Federal employees' jobs, pay and benefits are under attack like never before.
Republican lawmakers — emboldened by their midterm victory and hungry to do serious damage to the federal deficit — are proposing aggressive cuts to federal pay and staffing levels. On Jan. 7, Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, introduced a bill to freeze pay three years — one year more than the two-year freeze already approved last month by Congress — and to cut the federal work force by 10 percent, or about 200,000 employees. Then last week, a bigger salvo: The Republican Study Committee, led by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., and Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, introduced a bill to cut the work force 15 percent — about 300,000 employees — and freeze federal pay for five years.
And Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., proposed furloughs for most feds for two weeks in fiscal 2012.
Many feds feel they've been made into scapegoats for the failed economy and mounting national debt.
But they won't find much sympathy from the new chairman of the House subcommittee overseeing their issues.
"At least they get to keep their jobs right now," Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Fla., said in a Jan. 20 interview with Federal Times.
Benefits may be on the block
So far, no lawmakers have introduced bills affecting feds' retirement or health care. But many federal unions and advocates fear such proposals will come, possibly as part of President Obama's proposed 2012 budget.
Obama's bipartisan deficit commission, headed by former Sen. Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, proposed late last year saving tens of billions of dollars by cutting retirement benefits and reforming the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program to become a fixed-subsidy system.
A coalition of 15 federal and postal unions and management groups sent a Jan. 13 letter to Obama and Office of Management and Budget Director Jack Lew urging them not to include any of the deficit commission's suggestions in the 2012 budget proposal that will be released next month.
Representatives of the American Federation of Government Employees and National Treasury Employees Union each told Federal Times they don't know if the budget will include provisions hurting federal employees, and said the letter was an attempt to head off efforts to enact the deficit reduction plans.
"We wanted to be on the record with our facts, rather than have someone say [later], ‘We didn't know,'" NTEU President Colleen Kelley said Jan. 18. "Since we've already seen proposals going after federal issues one at a time, I fully expect to see legislation coming out of the deficit commission report. These things can become very real."
Ross intends to do just that.
The freshman representative, a former attorney for Walt Disney World and founder of the Ross Vecchio law firm in Lakeland, Fla., was elected with the support of tea party activists on a platform of cutting government waste. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, on Jan. 18 named Ross chairman of the federal work force, Postal Service and labor policy subcommittee.
Ross said his interest in streamlining the government stems from his experience as a small-business man, and he began looking at the federal work force as a way to do that.
"It piques my interest to want to make things run smoothly," Ross said. "I feel a great deal of motivation to follow through on not just my campaign pledges, but actually to make a difference in the administration of the federal work force."
Ross said he wants to hold hearings to learn as much as he can about federal work-force issues and said he will reach out to labor representatives and management representatives.
He wants to find places where the government can operate more efficiently — primarily through the use of more technology — and possibly outsource some jobs if they are not essential government functions.
End the General Schedule?
Ross said he wants to do away with the automatic pay raises for federal employees altogether and move to a system where pay raises are based on job performance. Hard-working federal employees should welcome such a change, he said, because it will reward them and push slackers to do better.
"You've got to have outcomes assessed and reward people for good performance," Ross said. "Otherwise, you're not being a good steward of taxpayer dollars. I'm sure there are many out there who do an exceptional job and probably aren't being recognized because those out there who aren't doing an exceptional job, who are a drain, are paid just as much or more."
Ross supports the federal pay freeze and cutting the federal work force beyond the 10 percent proposed by Brady, though he said he is not sure how much staffing should be cut.
"As a private businessman, I've had to make decisions on freezing payrolls and letting people go," Ross said. "The way we are right now, spending is out of control. These are things any good manager would look at in terms of reduced revenues. When the government and spending is out of control, we have to make some very difficult decisions. Most employees would rather take a freeze in pay or a cut in pay than lose their job."
Some critics of freezing federal pay, such as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, argue that proposals affecting federal employees would have a minuscule effect on the size of the federal debt and deficit. Brady and Ross disagree.
"Every dollar counts, and we'll hear every excuse in the world not to make these savings a reality, from ‘they are too small' to ‘they are too huge,'" Brady said in an e-mail to Federal Times. "The CUTS Act [HR 235] is a down payment to financial soundness and a test case to see if Congress is truly serious about getting our financial house in order."
Defense, VA ‘not immune' to cuts
Much of the increase in federal staffing in recent years has been at agencies such as the Defense, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs departments and assorted intelligence agencies in response to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, immigration enforcement and post-9/11 security needs. Ross said even those areas can't be immune from staffing reviews.
"The way we do [airport] screening may not be the most efficient and cost-effective way," Ross said. "To say we have to scale back employees for the sake of scaling them back is not what I'm suggesting. We must be strategic and look at what is essential, what's not, and what can be done more effectively. Just because we've done it this way doesn't mean we have to keep doing it this way."
Brady said hires in critical agencies must be countered with reductions in less-critical areas.
"That's common sense," Brady said. "Frankly, given our dangerous deficits, we don't have a choice but to transform our government into a leaner, smarter, more constitutionally driven work force."
Ross said he believes staffing increases in the government have come at the expense of private-sector employment.
"The government doesn't produce anything — it's a redistributor of private dollars," Ross said. "If we agree the government isn't a producer, but a service provider, we have to decide what is essential, and find the way to do it the best."
But Ross said he is not anti-federal-employee.
"Not at all," he said. "But most of us ran on limited government and reducing our taxes, and there's a direct relationship between federal employees and the size of government."