J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, praised a congressional effort to extend a 1 percent pay raise to blue-collar federal workers. (Colin Kelly/Staff)
For federal agencies and employees, Congress’s approval of a massive fiscal 2014 spending package last week was sorely needed: It spares some agencies severe sequester budget cuts and erases the threat of another partial government shutdown through the end of September.
The $1.1 trillion package, which includes more than $90 billion for the war in Afghanistan and other overseas operations, fleshes out the budget agreement reached last month.
That deal partially rolled back sequester-related budget cuts for the Defense Department and other agencies.
The new bill would tweak one controversial aspect of that deal, which pared cost-of-living adjustments for working-age military retirees.
Under the new measure, medically retired individuals and survivors would be exempted from the reduced adjustments, according to a summary by the House Appropriations Committee.
“We’re a little late, but we have gotten the job done,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., shortly before the chamber approved the package on the 72-26 vote on Jan. 16.
The measure won House approval by a similarly resounding margin the preceding day.
President Obama plans to sign the measure, but had not done so by press time late last week.
For agencies, the bill’s spending levels are generally an improvement over what they would have received in the event of another full-bore sequester, but remain relatively austere.
After accounting for inflation, the overall discretionary spending level will be below what it was a decade ago, according to Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the top Republican on the appropriations panel.
The Defense Department, for example, would be spared a fresh $20 billion sequester-related cut, but its $487 billion base budget would be virtually the same as what it’s getting now, according to the House Appropriations Committee. The figure is also well under the department’s original $520 billion request for 2014.
In an explanatory report accompanying the bill, lawmakers warned the Pentagon against a new round of civilian employee furloughs.
Last year, most of DoD’s workforce had to take six unpaid days off because of the sequester. “It is assumed” that passage of the new package “will eliminate entirely any need to furlough civilian employees in fiscal year 2014,” the report said.
One clear winner is the FBI, where leaders last year warned that they may have to furlough virtually the entire workforce for up to 10 days if the sequester took effect as originally planned in 2014. Instead, the bureau’s $8.3 billion slice of the new bill is some $230 million above last year’s pre-sequester level, the House committee said
But the Housing and Urban Development Department, a favorite target of congressional budget-cutters in recent years, will be whacked again; the $32.8 billion in the bill represents a 2.5 percent reduction from last year’s enacted level.
The Department of Homeland Security’s budget will be trimmed by almost 1 percent to $39.3 billion, with much of the cut absorbed by the Transportation Security Administration.
Customs and Border Protection, another branch of DHS, is getting a 1 percent increase to allow the hiring of another 2,000 CBP officers to staff the nation’s busiest ports of entry, the House committee said.
Among other things, the bill:
■ Extends a 1 percent pay raise to more than 200,000 blue-collar “wage grade” employees not covered by President Obama’s executive order providing an identical increase to General Schedule workers starting this month.
■ Continues a ban on “A-76” competitions used to determine whether contractors can more effectively do work performed by federal employees.
■ Renews a long-standing provision barring the U.S. Postal Service from ending Saturday mail delivery.
For both the General Schedule and wage grade workforce, the 1 percent raise is the first across-the-board increase since 2010. For wage grade employees, the boost would be retroactive to the beginning of fiscal 2014 in October, or some time thereafter, depending on when their schedules adjust, a spokesman for the American Federation of Government Employees said.
At the cash-strapped U.S. Postal Service, leaders have been pressing lawmakers for years to drop the requirement for Saturday mail delivery, a step they say would save almost $2 billion annually. But politically influential postal unions are staunchly opposed, and some lawmakers have also questioned the potential impact on service.
In an email, USPS spokeswoman Patricia Licata said that five-day mail delivery — while continuing weekend package delivery — continues to be a “fundamental element” in the Postal Service’s plan for regaining long-term financial stability. ■