Federal Times Blogs
For all the talk of gold-plated federal pay and benefits, the American Federation of Government Employees estimates that some 250,000 feds don’t enroll in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHBP) because they can’t afford the premiums.
If you fall in that category, Federal Times wants to get your view on whether the Affordable Care Act (widely known as “Obamacare”) will help provide coverage or not. To weigh in, please call Staff Writer Sean Reilly at 703-750-8684 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks very much!
Good Morning! Today is a federal holiday, but that doesn’t mean much to hundreds of thousands of furloughed federal employees as the partial government shutdown enters its third week. According to a message from one agency leader, the Office of Personnel Management has said this is an unpaid furlough day both for non-excepted and excepted employees unless they are required to report to “perform excepted functions.”
And about ending that shutdown . . . Sunday produced lots of saber-rattling and zero tangible evidence that a deal is in sight, either on reopening the government or raising the $16.7 trillion debt ceiling, with just three days now remaining before the Obama administration says it will run out of emergency borrowing authority.
Nonetheless, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev,. sounded an upbeat note, saying that he had a “productive conversation” with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. “Our discussions were substantive, and we will continue those discussions,” Reid said on the Senate floor, according to the Congressional Record. “I am optimistic about the prospects for a positive conclusion to the issues before this country today.”
The stock market seems a bit dubious, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average and other major indices all initially down this morning.
But if this fight originated in Republicans’ insistence on defunding implementation of the Affordable Care Act, (aka Obamacare), the battlefield has now expanded to encompass Democrats’ demands to soften or eliminate this fiscal year’s looming sequester-related budget cuts. Absent any congressional action to rewrite the 2011 Budget Control Act, the next round of reductions is likely to hit in January. McConnell is open to including changes in a debt ceiling increase, as long as the end result doesn’t raise overall spending levels and doesn’t involve a tax increase, according to an aide. But opening a new front in the conflict may make it that much harder to resolve, particularly with time growing short before a possible debt default.
Speaking on “Fox News Sunday” yesterday, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., warned that Democrats are “on the verge of being one tick too cute.” Just as the Republican-controlled House overreached in seeking to undo the health care law, Democrats are overreaching “as they see the House possibly in disarray,” Corker said.
The upshot (hold your breath): A final deal may involve a short-term continuing resolution to reopen the government and buy time for talks on a broader budget agreement. According to The Wall Street Journal , Reid sounded out McConnell on a CR that would run through mid-December at current spending levels, accompanied by an approximately six-month debt limit increase. In our deadline-driven political system, the expectation is that all sides will come together in time to stave off catastrophe (think August 2011). But assuming that the Senate can pass the usual stop-gap bill, the measure still has to get through the House, long-time budget watcher Stan Collender noted today in a Tweet. “No guarantee at all House GOP will follow even if [the Senate[ vote is 100-0,” Collender wrote.
In other news:
The Federal Housing Administration is calling on mortgage lenders to be sensitive to financial hardships facing federal employees and contractors subject to furloughs, layoffs or lost income stemming from the shutdown. That advisory comes as many, if not most, feds receive smaller than usual paychecks because of the shutdown.
The National Association of State Budget Officers (in case you thought the spending stalemate only affects feds) puts out a brief on what the shutdown means for state governments.
The American Federation of Government Employees warns that this week will be a “critical turning point” for many of its members as their paychecks run out.
Any major developments we’ve missed, particularly in regard to agency news? Let us know with an email to email@example.com
More than 17,000 Environmental Protection Agency employees will be spared a final furlough day that had been scheduled for Aug. 30, Administrator Gina McCarthy announced today. In a message to EPA staff, McCarthy attributed the decision to savings found elsewhere in the agency’s budget.
“The choices we made are difficult, but we continue to be flexible—applying good management decisions to ensure we continue to carry out our mission and reduce the impact of sequestration on each employee,” McCarthy said, according to a transcript provided by the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents many EPA staff.
In recent weeks, the Defense Department, IRS and Housing and Urban Development Department have also trimmed previously scheduled furlough days. The cancellation of the Aug. 30 day means that EPA employees will have taken about six days of unpaid time off, said John O’Grady, president of the AFGE’s Chicago local for the agency. While the cancellation is “wonderful” news, O’Grady said, he questioned whether furloughs had been needed in the first place.
“We’ve been trying to tell them that all along,” O’Grady said. “Finally it seems that we had somebody who listened.”
In a memo earlier this month, the Office of Management and Budget ordered agencies to step up planning for across-the-board budget cuts set to begin in March. Along the way, OMB added, agencies should involve employee unions “to the fullest extent practicable” in any decisions on hiring freezes, furloughs and other measures to cut workforce costs.
John O’Grady questions whether that message made it to the Environmental Protection Agency. O’Grady heads the American Federation of Government Employees local that represents some Chicago-area EPA staff and is also treasurer for the union’s national council of EPA locals. He sees little evidence that the agency is making much effort at outreach.
“It’s maddening,” he said last week after joining in an agency conference call that, by his account, produced little of note. “People are sitting in their cubes, they’re waiting for this hammer to go down and nobody’s giving them any information.”
In the Jan. 14 memo, acting OMB chief Jeff Zients declared that agencies had already engaged in “extensive planning” for the possible cuts, formally known as sequestration. Based on documents that O’Grady shared with FedLine, EPA officials either aren’t very far along or aren’t willing to explain what’s in store for EPA’s 18,000-strong workforce.
In an extensive request for information last month, for example, O’Grady asked the agency for a list of functions nationally that could be downsized if the cuts—formally known as “sequestration”—take effect as scheduled March 1. The union also sought a list of all contracts and a rundown of any contractor-performed functions that could be transferred to federal employees in the event of sequestration.
In its reply this month, EPA declined to provide any answers. “The union’s request is overly broad, unduly burdensome and the union has failed to state a particularized need for the requested information,” wrote Mitch Berkenkemper, the agency’s director of labor and employee relations.
This could be seen as typical labor-management sparring, but the information blackout at EPA and other civilian agencies stands in sharp contrast to how the Defense Department is proceeding. In the last two weeks, the military services have outlined a host of steps–including civilian hiring freezes, layoffs of temporary employees and possible furloughs–that are under way both to prepare for sequestration and the possibility of a year-long continuing resolution.
This could be seen as prudent planning that might have the side benefit of reminding members of Congress that the cuts would have a nationwide impact. The consensus is growing, however, that lawmakers and the Obama administration will fail to reach the agreement needed to avert the reductions, at least initially.
The latest to sound that view was House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis. “I think the sequester is going to happen,” Ryan said yesterday on the NBC talk show, “Meet the Press.”
EPA is already taking some small downsizing steps. Last month, the agency offered $25,000 buyouts and early retirement for up to 29 employees in its Washington, D.C. Office of Environmental Compliance and Assurance, and another 88 for staff throughout its San Francisco-based Region 9 bailiwick.
“Region 9 sought the authorities to facilitate the restructuring of enforcement work into a single enforcement division,” Regional Administrator Jared Blumenfeld wrote in a Dec. 3 memo. “The retirements will help us achieve voluntary staffing reductions and create opportunities to recruit entry-level employees.”
An EPA spokeswoman referred FedLine’s emailed questions on sequestration planning last week to OMB, which did not respond to a request for comment.
As an Army brat, Octavia Hall has always been around public service. She spent most of her life in Germany bouncing around several bases. Hall said it was both her family and her community who encouraged her to serve.
“When I went out to the bus stop, I remember the soldiers coming over to talk to us about going to school, getting a good education, asking about our career goals. They contributed a lot to my wanting to serve,” Hall said.
As military families do, Hall’s family moved again, this time to Maryland. In high school she was active in cheerleading and a singing-show group she compared to the hit show Glee.
When graduation approached, Hall wasn’t interested in military service, but she knew there was a place for her on the civilian side. After receiving her diploma from La Plata High School, she was hired as a resource adviser at Joint Base Andrews. Hall helped families with child-care needs, career development courses and dual military spouses dealing with deployments.
“It’s always been instilled in me to help others in need,” Hall said.
Listen to Hall share her views on public service:
Remember the contingency plans that agencies have to prepare for the event of a government shutdown?
Those documents have never been more accessible–now that the immediate threat of a halt to agency operations has passed.
Under a “What’s New” section of its web site dated April 14, the Office of Management and Budget has posted links to more than 50 agency plans. Had the government closed, for example, more than three-quarters of employees in the Executive Office of the President would have been furloughed. At least for now, the prospect of a shutdown has receded since Congress last week approved a government-wide budget for the rest of fiscal 2011.
The new-found availability of the shutdown plans is a shift from only a few weeks ago, when the Obama administration rebuffed pleas from federal employee unions to release them. Late last month, the American Federation of Government Employees sued for access under the Freedom of Information Act.
But while the OMB site suggests that the administration began posting links to the records in one place only last Thursday, budget office spokeswoman Moira Mack said the site actually went up April 8. On Monday, April 4, agencies began “reaching out” to federal managers to discuss plans for an orderly shutdown, Mack said in an email, and began fielding employee questions later in the week.
And even if many agency shutdown plans are now only a mouse click away, AFGE will pursue its lawsuit, a spokesman said, to set some “parameters’ for how to handle the information in the future.