Federal Times Blogs

Sequestration is delayed — what do you think?

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Gosh, wasn’t the last month of planning for and arguing over the sequestration budget cuts a lot of fun? Guess what — we get to do it all over again!

The fiscal cliff deal Congress passed New Year’s Day doesn’t do away with sequestration — it just delays it two months. Federal Times would like to hear your thoughts about the prospect of a delayed sequestration. How does this throw off your plans? What does the uncertainty mean for your projects? Are you angry that this mess has just been kicked down the road once again? Are you worried that another pay freeze will get mixed into the next round of negotiations? What’s the buzz around your office?

E-mail me at slosey@federaltimes.com if you’d like to talk. You can stay anonymous if you like.

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Deficit reduction, Onion-style

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Tired of hearing about one wonky proposal to avert sequestration after another? Trust us, you’re gonna want to read this one.

The Onion yesterday published an eight-point plan to avert the rapidly-approaching fiscal cliff, and its editors are nothing if not confident. The editorial begins by declaring: “Those who reject any part of this plan are not only ignorant, but are also guilty of actively trying to undermine the nation and its government.”

Their cuts would be brutal … and unique. The Onion proposes abolishing several agencies (such as the Coast Guard and the Environmental Protection Agency), New Mexico, dams, and elk. Schools would only teach corn farming, nuclear weaponry and print journalism. All foreign aid would be cut, except to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. And fishing licenses would cost $140,000.

Since my wife is from Iowa, I was somewhat disturbed to see The Onion propose targeting Iowa and Minnesota teenagers as a way to eliminate 8 percent of the nation’s population. (They don’t explain how this would be accomplished, but I suspect it would involve some sort of Hunger Games.) But I don’t want to be accused of actively trying to undermine the United States, so I guess I have to support their whole plan.

But at least they’re not proposing more cuts to federal pay and benefits. So that’s something, at least.

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As the federal workforce shrinks, how are you coping?

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The latest statistics on the federal workforce provide the strongest proof yet that government employment has peaked and is on its way down. USA Today reported that the federal workforce in April was down 11,600 employees from the same time last year.

This change shouldn’t come as much surprise — budgets are contracting, and many agencies have offered buyouts over the last year and a half to help deal with the tight fiscal environment. But Federal Times is wondering what this new reality means on the ground, for front-line workers who have to actually get the government’s work done.

Have you seen your office’s workforce contract over the last year or two? How has that affected you? Have you and your colleagues had to pick up duties that used to be done by departed workers? Are some duties that you’d like to get done falling between the cracks? Or have your supervisors decided to pull back and discontinue some missions?

We’d like to hear from you. E-mail me at slosey@federaltimes.com if you’d like to talk. If you’d prefer to speak off the record, that’s fine.

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Could RIFs be the lesser of two evils?

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Former intelligence CHCO Ron Sanders

For more than a year, cash-strapped agencies across the government have been offering buyouts and early outs to reduce their payrolls. Several of those agencies said it’s better to cut the rolls voluntary to avoid messy, morale-killing layoffs, or reductions-in-force for those who speak government-ese.

But at today’s Excellence in Government conference, a common refrain emerged: The dreaded RIF may be unavoidable — and may even be a better tool for managing the workforce than buyouts and early outs.

“The R-word — RIF — has its place, because it is the most surgical,” said Ron Sanders, the intelligence community’s former chief human capital officer. “I know that sounds harsh. I don’t mean it to be. But if you’re trying to protect critical skills, that’s an option you can’t take off the table.”

Reginald Wells, the Social Security Administration’s CHCO, echoed Sanders in a later session at the conference, sponsored by Government Executive:

Most of us in the human capital world would probably rather not go there, if we can avoid it. I hope not. But I don’t think you can afford to invalidate any legitimate tool. If you tinker around the edges and you still end up with a problem, when you could have had a reduction in force … if you can just sometimes make a cut, and be done with that particular problem, you’re better off.

The problem with buyouts and early outs, Sanders said, is that agencies have limited control over who will leave. There’s no guarantee the people an agency is trying to get rid of will take the offer, Sanders said. And there’s a risk that, unless the offer is narrowly targeted, the agency could lose some vital employees.

A RIF “sometimes does the least harm,” Sanders said. “But these things take time to heal.” The IRS’ remaining workforce was still talking about their 1995 RIF six years later, he said. And those left behind sometimes experience survivor’s guilt.

Wells stressed to Federal Times that SSA is not considering RIFs, and said he hopes other agencies will be able to make it through the current budget crunch without having to take that step.

But with federal agencies already stretched thin, sequestration looming, and current and former HR officials openly discussing the possible necessity of RIFs, could this be the next shoe to drop?

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GOP budget plan would drastically hike FERS contributions

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The Republican Study Committee yesterday proposed steep increases to the amount federal employees would contribute to their pension plans.

The committee’s budget plan for next year — called “Cut, Cap and Balance: A Budget for Fiscal Year 2013″ — calls for federal employees to split the cost of their pensions with taxpayers. Federal Employees Retirement System employees now contribute 0.8 percent of each paycheck toward their pensions; the government covers the remaining 11.7 percent. This would mean FERS employees would pay 6.25 percent of each paycheck toward their pension. (Plus another 6.2 percent towards Social Security, of course, and their regular Thrift Savings Plan contributions if they choose to participate.)

Employees under the older Civil Service Retirement System would be unaffected, since they already pay the same 7 percent toward their pensions as the government.

The Republican Study Committee said this would save $110 billion over ten years.

The proposal also calls for switching to a so-called chained CPI method for inflation-based adjustments to federal pensions, which the GOP said would save $26 billion over a decade.

And it wants to turn the Federal Employees Health Benefit Program to a premium support system, which it expects would save $27.6 billion over ten years. Under this plan, the government would cover the first $5,000 of premiums for a self-only health plan, or the first $11,000 for a family plan, and federal employees would cover the rest. The GOP plan doesn’t say whether or by how much those subsidies would increase in the future, but when the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles deficit committee considered a similar plan for FEHBP, it proposed increasing subsidies by the gross domestic product plus one percentage point. Critics of that plan said the growth would not keep up with inflation, eventually shifting the bulk of health care costs onto federal employees.

(Speaking of Simpson-Bowles, CNN reports that there may be some life in it yet … but probably not much. Seems that not even Clint Eastwood can save that plan.)

Last year’s Republican Study Committee budget proposal would have frozen pay for five years and cut the workforce by 15 percent. But yesterday’s plan does not include those provisions.

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2013 budget cuts: What do you think?

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While spending in the Obama administration’s proposed fiscal budget is essentially flat overall, some agencies are facing cuts. The Agriculture, Defense, Health and Human Services, Labor and Treasury departments and the Environmental Protection Agency are just a few of the organizations that could possibly see declines in their budgets next year.

What do you think about the proposed budget? How would cuts affect your organization, and what would they mean for you personally? E-mail me at slosey@federaltimes.com or Sean Reilly at sreilly@federaltimes.com to share your thoughts. If you’d like to talk anonymously, that’s fine.

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Perry: Freeze federal hiring, salaries

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Texas governor and presidential candidate Rick Perry at the 2011 Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry yesterday released his “Cut, Balance and Grow” plan for cutting federal spending and balancing the budget. It includes what should be a familiar refrain by now: Freeze federal employees’ hiring and pay raises “until the budget is balanced.”

The federal workforce has ballooned under the current administration, with 175,000 new positions being created since 2009. Americans deserve a leaner, more efficient federal workforce, not one that pays its employees far more than what comparable private employees receive, or one that hands out bonuses and promotions regardless of performance. Federal bureaucrats should not receive real increases in pay while taxpayers are losing their jobs and struggling to pay their bills.

This is the first presidential campaign I can recall where federal staffing and pay has been such a hot political issue. With Republican lawmakers peppering the deficit reduction supercommittee with proposals that hit feds’ paychecks and jobs, feds should expect a lot more of this kind of talk over the next year.

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Federal Times buyout tracker

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With well over a dozen agencies considering, planning or offering buyouts and early retirements, we thought it was time to compile all this data together into one easy-to-find chart. As new agencies announce buyouts or update their plans, we’ll update the chart too, so keep checking FedLine for the latest in buyout news.

The latest is the Library of Congress, which today told employees it would offer buyouts and early outs to up to 349 employees. And it’s a safe bet that plenty more are on their way, especially with the White House eying budget cuts of up to 10 percent.

Agency Month Numbers Details
Justice Jan. 31 Antitrust Division employees who took buyouts
USPS April 2,003 Employees who took $20,000 buyouts; left by June
FTC April 38 Employees who took buyouts and early outs and left by end of June; offers were extended to 301 employees
USDA May 544 Employees offered buyouts; unspecified number of early retirements also offered
Smithsonian May 104 Employees who applied for buyouts so far; some may drop out by Oct. 1 deadline
GPO June 330 Buyouts and early outs offered
NRC June Up to 50 Plans to ask for permission to offer up to 50 buyouts and unspecified number of early retirements; says still polishing request to be submitted to OPM
HUD June Unk. Said several offices have permission to offer buyouts and early outs
Army Aug. Up to 8,741 Announces plans to cut 8,741 civilian jobs by Oct. 2012, at least in part through buyouts and early outs
Education Aug. Unk. Announces buyouts and early retirements largely targeted at senior officials
GAO Aug. 56 Employees offered buyouts, unspecified number also offered early retirements; must leave by Sept. 30
Commerce Aug. Unk. Offers buyouts and early outs through Dec. 31, 2012
Air Force Aug. Up to 4,000 Announces plans to offer buyouts and early outs to 4,000 civilians
Library of Congress Aug. 349 Buyouts and early outs offered; 175 to Library Services, 52 to Copyright division, 40 to Congressional Research Service, 29 to Office of Support Operations, 24 to Office of Strategic Initiatives, 16 to Law Library, 13 to Office of the Librarian

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Buyouts and early outs: We want to hear from you

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It seems every time we turn around these days, another agency is offering buyouts or early retirements. Last week, it was the Education Department, then the Government Accountability Office, and now the Commerce Department has gotten permission to use those tools to cut staff at eight bureaus.

What’s the scuttlebutt around your office? Are you hearing watercooler rumors about planned buyouts or early outs, or have your supervisors sent out e-mails or memos confirming they’re in the works? We’d love to hear what you’re hearing. E-mail me at slosey@federaltimes.com with any news about buyouts or early retirements at your agency. If you’d like to just talk off the record, that’s fine.

And while we’re on the subject, what do you think of these offers? Are you planning on taking them, if you have the chance? Is a $25,000 buyout offer enough to get you to give up your career, with the private sector job market so dicey and the stock market giving people whiplash? Or would you need more to give up your federal job?

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Boehner: If federal jobs are lost, ‘so be it’

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Speaker of the House John Boehner and House Majority Whip Eric Cantor blasted the White House’s budget in a press conference this morning, saying it “spends too much, borrows too much, and taxes too much” and “will continue to hurt job creation.”

But Boehner’s not too wild about some of the jobs that have been created lately:

Over the last two years since President Obama has taken office, the federal government has added 200,000 new federal jobs. And if some of those jobs are lost in this, so be it. We’re broke. It’s time for us to get serious about how we’re spending the nation’s money.

Boehner told reporters he did not know how many federal jobs might be lost as spending is trimmed. But recent aggressive deficit reduction proposals would put 10 percent to 15 percent of the federal workforce on the chopping block.

As for fact-checking Boehner’s numbers, it’s a little tricky, since the numbers on the Office of Personnel Management’s FedScope site are slightly stale. In December 2008 — about a month before Obama was inaugurated — the federal government had 1,945,256 employees. In September 2010 — the latest quarter for which OPM data is available — the government had 2,113,980. That’s an increase of 168,724 employees — lower than the 200,000 figure Boehner cited, but not completely out of the ballpark, especially since we don’t yet have stats for the last four months.

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