Freshman Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Fla., plans nothing less than the most drastic overhaul of the federal civil service since the post-World War II era. The new chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on the federal workforce wants to scrap the General Schedule and replace it with a pay-for-performance system that reflects market rates.
He also wants to revamp Title V rules governing appeals and adverse actions to give managers more power to discipline poor performers.
"It's an antiquated system," Ross said. Title V rules handcuff managers and keep them from efficiently running their offices, he said.
But Ross' plan still lacks details. He is looking at the U.S. Postal Service's pay-for-performance system as a possible model, but is not considering the Pentagon's failed National Security Personnel System.
And Ross is setting up a website so feds can anonymously suggest ways to improve the civil service.
"We believe they are stakeholders," Ross said. "We want them to do well."
Federal Times spoke with Ross on April 4 in his office on Capitol Hill. Following are edited excerpts.
Q: How do you get Congress to decommission the General Schedule?
Ross: The first thing is to raise awareness, and that's what we've done. I firmly believe that those that are performing well, under a better system that rewards good performance, will perform even better. And that they won't feel like they're carrying those who aren't performing well because the system is so bogged down with protecting those who do not perform well. If we can empower supervisors with the ability to reward those that are performing well, I think you'll see a change in performance for the good.
We're looking at one [plan] right now with Patrick Donahoe, postmaster general, where they have pay for performance for 65,000 managers [and] workers. If we allow the federal worker to see that they will do much better in terms of compensation with good performance, they're going to want to be on board with this.
Q: So you're looking at other parts of Title V having to do with employee appeals.
Ross: If you were to believe the General Schedule that's in place right now, 99.4 percent of all federal employees are performing at or above their required level. That's hard to imagine. That may be indicative that managers just want to promote or pay, to avoid having to go through any appeals process or disciplinary action. We need to empower managers with the ability to make decisions that stick, so they can have better performers.
Q: You are looking at all of Title V?
Ross: Yes. Now, I think, is the time. Will we get anything done? It'll depend on not only what we formulate, how we pass it out of the House, but of course, what the appetite for it is in the Senate. This could be a several-year process. We're asking the federal workforce to be engaged with us. I think that's important.
Q: Do you see this becoming a purely partisan issue?
Ross: Oh, I hope not. I don't see a partisan issue at all. I think everybody wants to have a very satisfied, strong performing federal workforce. Once we are able to identify what it would take to make people perform well and to be compensated for that, it becomes a very bipartisan issue in terms of support.
Collective bargaining Q: Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., recently said he doesn't feel collective bargaining has a place in the federal workplace. What are your thoughts?
Ross: I am not a big fan of federal collective bargaining. And I think that while collective bargaining can affect national security and the federal government's services, I am not out there to eliminate collective bargaining. I would much rather work on one thing right now, and that's pay-for-performance. I think that if we go after collective bargaining as a whole, we're going to do more to disrupt what needs to be done immediately, which is looking at the compensation and the systemic structure of Title V.
Q: Do you think we're headed toward a Wisconsin-style showdown over collective bargaining?
Ross: No, because [federal employees] can't collective-bargain over their wages, and that was a big issue right there. I think that if we can make changes within the system that allow for those [who] aren't performing well to move on and those [who] are performing well to be rewarded and compensated better, I think we're going to see a change in the collective bargaining system. I think that employees [who] are doing well are not going to want to support a collective bargaining deal that rewards those who don't.
Q: And if the unions stand in the way of your desired overhaul?
Ross: Which is why I'm reaching out to federal employees individually. I don't expect the unions to come and embrace me. I expect them to come and say, "no, we don't want to change anything." They have to justify their existence, I understand that. But this is an opportunity to reach out to individual federal workers and say, what is it that's going to make your job better?
The federal pay gap Q: Should federal pay be cut?
Ross: Not across the board, no. Some of the higher educational jobs — engineers, the more skilled — those jobs are probably more underpaid in the federal government and should be adequately compensated. As we look at those we can compare to private sector, maybe we do need to cut some of them on a lower scale.
I think the freeze that's out there is absolutely necessary, because we're broke. And unfortunately, the freeze we have today isn't a genuine freeze, but that's another story.
Q: Do you think the pay freeze should be extended beyond 2012, or broadened to include step increases?
Ross: It should be broadened to include step increases. If we're going to call it a freeze, it shouldn't be a freeze with a 3 percent increase every year. But should it go beyond 2012? Well, if we don't do something in the 2012 budget to reduce our spending, yes, then we need to continue the freeze.
Q: If the government does have to cut its staffing levels, how should it decide where to cut?
Ross: We have to look at who's performing well and who's not performing well. I don't think you're going to find this out unless you have the managers and supervisors empowered to say, "I could do this job, instead of with 10 employees, with seven employees, but I'm carrying these three because I can't do anything about it." Until we have that type of identification of resources, we can't make those decisions as to how much we can cut. I think there's room to make cuts.
Retirement benefits Q: Do you think the government should switch to a high-five approach [basing retirement annuities on an employee's average salary over five years instead of three years], as the deficit reduction commission proposed?
Ross: Yes, I do. I think it's more prudent. Of course, the federal workforce will not like that. There's the threat [that] we're going to see a mass exodus of people because they want to get their high-three and move on. That's a risk we'll have to take. But again, we're broke.
Q: Do you believe, as Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., believes, that there should not be a Federal Employees Retirement System defined pension benefit? That retired feds should only have their Thrift Savings Plan and Social Security?
Ross: Ideally, yes. Because again, how do we fund it? We're seeing this happen right now with state pension plans, that they can't get the rate of return off their dollars to fund these things. And we're going to run into the same problem with the federal government.•
Q: So you think it's not working?
Ross: I wouldn't say it's not working. It's working better than most defined pension plans for state employees. It's working better than [the Civil Service Retirement System] (CSRS). But we've got to be cognizant of the fact that we can't meet funding by way of investment to fund obligations under FERS.
Q: What are you basing that on, your statement that we can't afford FERS?
Ross: Let me back up. I would rather have FERS today than the CSRS that preceded it. My concern is that in our state of economy, when we have such miniscule rates of return, it's going to be difficult to uphold our obligations under the existing FERS.
Q: So today, do you think we should get rid of the FERS defined benefit portion?
Ross: No, I do not. I think we have to be aware of our investment strategy. •
Q: And switching to a high-five would help make FERS more viable?
Ross: I think it would, yes.
• Editor's note: Ross' office later said the congressman supports ending the defined benefit portion of FERS only for new hires. Ross wants to switch employees currently under FERS to a high-five system and increase the amount they pay into that pension.