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Budget agreement should lessen need for furloughs, RIFs, experts say

Dec. 11, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
By SEAN REILLY   |   Comments

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The newly unveiled budget agreement should ease — but not eliminate — pressure on agencies to resort to unpaid furloughs and reductions-in-force over the next two years, former federal officials and other observers said Wednesday.

The agreement, announced late Tuesday by a House-Senate budget committee, would partially repeal sequester-related spending cuts set to take effect in fiscal 2014 and 2015. By giving agencies longer-term certainty over their budgets, the deal would also allow managers to plan for reductions in travel and other areas besides personnel, said Henry Romero, a one-time Office of Personnel Management executive now at Federal Management Partners, a consulting firm.

But with budgets still tight, Romero added, the new framework could still cause pain for agencies “in terms of how many dollars do we have available for our manpower costs.”

The deal still needs approval from the full House and Senate, followed by a full-year spending package to spell out budgets for individual agencies.

Under the agreement, “it’s going to be better for everybody,” said Matt Biggs, legislative and political director for the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, a union representing employees at NASA and other agencies. “The question is, how much better?”

The clearest beneficiary would be the Defense Department. For 2014, the agreement would set a governmentwide discretionary spending cap of $1.012 trillion, up $45 billion from the existing maximum. Of that increase, approximately half would go to DoD — enough to prevent a $20 billion cut that is otherwise set to begin next month, said Steve Ellis, vice president at Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group.

The exact 2014 levels for DoD and other agencies, however, will be fixed by the House and Senate appropriations committees, which must act within the next month to replace a continuing resolution that expires Jan. 15.

Because the House is scheduled to leave for its holiday break at the end of this week and not return until Jan. 7, Ellis said he expected lawmakers to buy time with another short-term CR that might last until the end of January.

In a Wednesday statement, the Obama administration urged congressional passage of the budget agreement, adding that the White House looks forward to then working with lawmakers to pass “clean, full-year FY14 appropriations bills.”

Leaders of the FBI Agents Association, who warned last week that furloughs would disrupt critical crime-fighting operations, “are very pleased” that lawmakers reached a compromise, President Reynaldo Tariche said Wednesday.

Until the FBI’s final budget is known, however, the association is otherwise “reserving our judgment,” he said.

For the bureau, it’s too early to tell what the impact will be, spokeswoman Allison Mahan said in an email.

“The agreement is at a very high level, so we are not sure how the appropriations committees will decide to disperse the money,” she said.

At the Defense Department, officials are reviewing the agreement and have no comment at this point, a Pentagon spokesman said. In an apparent coincidence, the Air Force announced plans Wednesday to cut 900 civilian jobs in 2014.

The new budget agreement has drawn fire from unions because it would raise pension contributions for federal employees hired after this month to 4.4 percent of salary, compared with 0.8 percent for most of the workforce. Based on previous experience, however, Romero foresaw little effect on agencies’ recruiting efforts.

“We always seem to manage to continue to attract people who want to work for the government,” he said.

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