President Obama this afternoon bid farewell to departing Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry today in a statement:
John Berry has served the American people well as Director of the Office of Personnel Management. He’s streamlined the way federal employees are hired, modernized the workplace, made the federal workforce more diverse, and increased the number of returning servicemembers hired by the government. John has been a champion for federal workers – men and women who devote their lives to vital tasks like securing our borders, curing disease, and keeping the American people safe. This country is better off because of John’s talent and dedication, and I’m grateful to him for his service.
After the jump, you can find Berry’s complete goodbye message to OPM staff.
As we reported yesterday, the members of the National Council on Federal Labor-Management Relations sounded a red alert Wednesday on the state of the federal government’s recruiting and retention efforts. With the ongoing pay freeze, furloughs, sequester budget cuts and threats to cut benefits, union leaders and administration officials alike fear the federal workforce could crack under the pressure. Longtime feds with decades of experience could throw in the towel and retire, they fear, and talented young up-and-comers could conclude that the federal government isn’t a good place to work and take their skills elsewhere.
Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry capped the discussion with an impassioned — and apparently impromptu — speech, which made it clear he has had it up to here with the constant attacks on federal employees. It was particularly striking because Berry’s public persona is usually so cheerful and optimistic, and it drew applause from the rest of the council. Following are lightly-edited excerpts of Berry’s seemingly off-the-cuff remarks:
I will in closing make a few points, if you would indulge me. I know that this council, if anything, I’m preaching to the choir.
85 percent of our workforce is outside of Washington. The workforce today is the same size it was when Lyndon Johnson was president, and yet we have 60 million more Americans. Don’t talk to me about efficiency. Only in this town can on one day a discussion be held and the [Government Accountability] Office dragged me over the coals on skill gaps, and the fact that we cannot hire people to fight cybersecurity in this nation, and the president in the State of the Union message making clear that we are facing essentially a pre-9/11 situation with cybersecurity, and we can’t hire people? And yet the next day, have the Congress adopt the third year of a pay freeze. And no one see a connection between those two points.
Only in Washington.
I don’t know what straw breaks the camel’s back, but I can tell you this: We are close to the edge of the cliff. And all public policy officials, whether they be Republican or Democrat, need to be exercising extreme caution. We cannot recruit and retain a qualified workforce by freezing their pay forever. We cannot do it by changing their retirement plan on an annual basis. We cannot do it by denigrating public service. My father served at Guadalcanal, the 1st Marine Division. He was one of the lucky few to make it off alive. And he pointed out to me, even though I did not serve in the military, that the oath I took when I joined federal service was the exact same oath he took when he put his life at risk for this nation’s liberty.
Shame on anyone who would hold that oath as something not worthy of respect. And that’s what we need to get back to in America, where we respect service. Where we respect people who will put their lives on the line for their country. Where we respect those who will suffer for their neighbor and focus on making their lives and their quality of lives better. We need to get back to that. And I know that every member of this council shares that vision. And I know the president does as well.
My commitment to you is: we will use this forum to advance that message. Public service matters, and God help the Republic the day that that is no longer a true statement.
Lest anyone forget, Postmaster General Pat Donahoe remains keenly interested in creating a stand-alone health insurance plan for about 1.1 million U.S. Postal Service employees and retirees.
The latest reminder came at last week’s Senate hearing on the USPS’s financial crisis. Although lawmakers’ attention was predictably focused on the agency’s decision to end Saturday mail delivery, Donahoe also stressed the urgency of pulling out of the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program.
“An astonishing 20 cents of every revenue dollar the Postal Service takes in must go toward health care costs,” Donahoe said in prepared testimony. “By moving away from the federal system, nearly all of our employees and retirees would reap the benefits of getting equivalent or better healthcare coverage and paying less for it.”
Creation of a new health plan was a major stumbling block in contract talks with the National Association of Letter Carriers; although labor and management couldn’t reach a deal, a joint task force will keep discussing the issue, according to an arbitration panel’s recent decision.
But the Postal Service hasn’t furnished many details about what it has in mind. And employees may understandably be skeptical of any promises to provide comparable (or better) benefits at lower cost. Fortunately, the USPS inspector general took a look at the subject last year that fleshes out some specifics.
The inspector general’s report, whose conclusions drew a vigorous dissent from Postal Service management, can be read here. It’s of course possible that the USPS human resources team has since made changes to their plan; if so, however, those changes haven’t been made public.
In the meantime, here are a few takeaways from the IG’s review. By the Postal Service’s reckoning, creation of a stand-alone plan would save $52 billion. (The original total was $62.1 billion, but the agency then dropped the idea of freezing its contributions for retiree health insurance, according to the report.) Although the IG doesn’t say over what period of time those savings would occur, the key is requiring employees and retirees to move to Medicare, the taxpayer-funded medical benefits program for people aged 65 and older.
That step alone would save some $37 billion; for older employees and retirees, the Postal Service’s health plan (whatever it turns out to be) would become the back-up insurer to Medicare. The Postal Service would also be freed of much, if not all, of the obligation to set aside billions of dollars now for future retiree care.
But from the employee/retiree perspective, there’s one immediate concern. By law, anyone eligible for Medicare Part B (which covers things like doctors’ visits and lab tests) is supposed to sign up after turning 65 or else face a 10 percent, per year, enrollment penalty.
According to the IG, there were about 88,000 USPS retirees over 65 who hadn’t signed up. Those folks would thus face late-enrollment penalties totaling $53 million per year, or an average of $625 per person. The Postal Service needs to settle that issue, the inspector general said, either by ensuring that the penalties will be waived or by deciding who’s going to foot the bill.
USPS workers and retirees could also pay more under another proposed change that would require anyone retiring after the end of this year to pay a standard deductible before the Postal Service picks up any cost not covered by Medicare. But the Postal Service would also expand coverage options from the two currently offered by the FEHBP to four. In some instances, employees could pay less than they do now. (Check out p. 11 of the IG report for a side-by-side comparison.)
The overall goal here is simple. The Postal Service, like any other money-losing enterprise, is trying to tamp down costs wherever it can. And postal workers generally pay less for their health benefits than other federal employees.
But because congressional approval is required, the Postal Service’s plans need political traction that so far appears to be lacking. At a September 2011 congressional hearing, for example, Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry was notably unenthusiastic about letting the Postal Service leave the FEHBP. A fuller analysis of the potential effects was needed, Berry said, adding that he thought postal employees were “well-served” by the status quo.
In last year’s report, the inspector general recommended that USPS officials lay out to affected employees and retirees, as well as the government, “all potential cost increases, cost savings and cost shifts that would result from a transition to a Postal Service-proposed alternative health care plan.”
In their strongly worded response attached to the report, postal executives both disputed key findings and objected to what they called its “negative tone.” The Postal Service, for example, has proposed relief from the Medicare late enrollment penalties, they wrote. A draft of the report, they added, “totally ignores the fact that total costs will decrease substantially and that out-of-pocket costs for most employees and retirees will decrease.”
The Postal Service has yet, however, to make the kind of detailed disclosure urged by the IG. Until it does, a tough sales job lies ahead.
Since Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced Jan. 16 that he plans to step down at the end of March, federal government watchers have speculated that Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry may be in the running to replace him. When I asked Berry that day about the job, he wouldn’t even say whether he had talked to President Obama. “No comment,” Berry said. “At this point, I stand ready to serve the President in any capacity he desires.”
But his old friend and former boss, House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland, is far less reticent about Berry’s possible promotion.
“Yes, I do know that [Obama] is looking at him,” Hoyer told me at a lunch briefing in Bowie, Md. Hoyer continued:
I’ve talked to the Obama administration. I’ve talked to [Obama adviser] Peter Rouse, who’s helping coordinate that. They really like John Berry. They think John Berry has done an outstanding job as director of the Office of Personnel Management.
Hoyer lauded Berry’s experience as Interior’s assistant secretary for policy, management and budget during the Clinton administration. “He, in effect, ran the department,” Hoyer said. “Bruce Babbitt, who was secretary at the time, has told me that he did an absolutely extraordinary job. So I think John Berry would be a wonderful secretary of Interior.”
Hoyer said he doesn’t know if the White House ultimately will select Berry, and notes that Interior secretaries have traditionally come from Western states. Berry is from Maryland. But Hoyer thinks the White House will make a decision soon, and said running Interior would be Berry’s dream job.
What he wants is Interior. He loves conservation issues, he loves preservation, he loves the outdoors. He’s wonderful, wonderful, one of the most positive human beings I’ve ever met in my life.
OPM declined to comment, and referred me to Berry’s previous statement.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s decision to step down at the end of March opens up one more Cabinet position in the second Obama administration — and may present an opportunity for Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry.
While Berry is most known these days for his focus on federal hiring, pensions and other personnel matters, nature issues are especially close to his heart. He was director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Zoological Park before Obama tapped him to run OPM, and prior to that, served as executive director of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. He also served as Interior’s assistant secretary for policy, management and budget during the Clinton administration.
The Washington Post’s Lisa Rein reported in a profile of Berry last fall that his friends say he is seeking the job. If selected and confirmed, Berry would be the first openly gay man to serve in a presidential Cabinet.
But when I asked Berry this morning if he had talked to Obama about running Interior, he was tight-lipped:
No comment. At this point, I stand ready to serve the President in any capacity he desires.
The non-profit firm that runs the nation’s largest Combined Federal Campaign has recovered about one-third of the $308,000 it had to repay earlier this year after auditors questioned spending for such items as meals for loaned executives, flowers and a night out at a Washington Nationals baseball game.
Global Impact, which manages the National Capital Area CFC, had sought reimbursement for about $294,000 of that total; Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry agreed to return $$102,100 after reviewing additional documentation, according to an Aug. 14 letter released today at Federal Times’ request.
Among the expenses that Berry decided were in fact allowable: $15,859 incurred as part of a government-required renovation of CFC offices; $39,200 in audit expenses; and $1,400 in office kitchen supplies. Those that he turned down included $11,315 for the Nationals tickets, $102,503 for meals and $77 for flowers for a CFC employee.
The audit by the OPM inspector general was released in March; Global Impact filed its appeal in May, Berry’s letter says.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan today ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional, the Associated Press said, becoming the second federal appeals court to do so this year.
DOMA requires the federal government to define marriage as between one man and one woman, and as a result blocks federal spousal benefits — such as health and retirement benefits — from going to the legally-married same-sex spouses of federal employees. The case in today’s ruling — Windsor v. United States — is not related to federal employee benefits.
But other cases challenging DOMA have centered around federal benefits. The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston in May also declared DOMA unconstitutional when it said Dean Hara, the legally-married husband of late Rep. Gerry Studds, D-Mass., had been improperly denied health coverage from the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program.
And in February, a U.S. District Court judge in San Francisco handed lesbian federal employee Karen Golinski a major victory when he also declared DOMA unconstitutional, and ordered the Office of Personnel Management to extend FEHBP coverage to Golinski’s wife, Amy Cunninghis. OPM did so in May, but stressed that it was a legally-mandated one-person exemption that would apply only to Cunninghis and no other same-sex spouses. OPM Director John Berry, who is gay, has repeatedly said he supports extending health care coverage to gay feds’ spouses and partners, but said he is handcuffed by DOMA.
Despite the growing legal consensus against DOMA, it isn’t dead yet. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to start considering one of several cases challenging DOMA soon — perhaps this year, if Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is correct.
Last week we reported that even though lesbian federal employee Karen Golinski won health coverage for her wife — courtesy of a February court ruling — the Office of Personnel Management is still instructing federal agencies to deny the same coverage to all other gay and lesbian feds’ spouses.
Today I asked OPM Director John Berry how his agency can legally extend Federal Employees Health Benefits Program benefits to only one couple, and treat thousands more differently. He said, basically, that the Justice Department’s legal opinion on the Golinski ruling has tied OPM’s hands:
As someone who’s openly gay and has a partner that would love to join the FEHBP program, and I would love to have him be able to join the FEHBP program, because it’s a great program. I look forward to this issue resolving itself, personally. So you can rest assured, I’m watching this issue closely. That being said, it’s the Justice Department that gets to decide what a court ruling allows us to do. And the Justice Department has defined that, how this court ruling, because of the jurisdiction of the court and the direction of the court, it only applies to this one person. That’s what I’ve been told.
I have to do what the Justice Department tells me to do. As a sworn officer, upholding the Constitution, I’m enforcing what the Justice Department’s told me.
Berry pledged to keep pushing to extend health care benefits to gay and lesbian feds’ same-sex partners, and said he hopes Congress will pass a bill granting those rights:
My hope, at the end of the day, is that Congress can act. We’ve had wonderful bipartisan support on this. Sen. [Susan] Collins [R-Maine] has been as strong an advocate as Sen. [Joe] Lieberman [I-Conn.] and Sen. [Daniel] Akaka [D-Hawaii] in the Senate, and we’ve got the same in the House. I think there’s a shot that, even legislatively, we can move forward on this, is my hope. Otherwise, we’ll wait and see what the Justice Department allows us to do, responding to appropriate court action.
However, Senate support for extending same-sex benefits isn’t as bipartisan as Berry suggested. Collins remains the only Republican co-sponsor of S 1910, and no Republicans have signed on to the House version, HR 3485. And with House Republicans dead-set against broadening federal employees’ benefits — gay or straight — I don’t see how same-sex health benefits can possibly pass Congress.
Berry’s comments came a few hours before news broke that President Obama now backs gay marriage.
Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry yesterday weighed in on the Congressional Budget Office study that found federal employees are compensated 16 percent higher than private sector employees. Long story short, Berry has his doubts and wants to see more from CBO on how they derived their figures.
Berry’s primary concern is that they may not have taken the complexity of jobs into account. For example, he said:
Let’s take a job — forklift operator. You’ve got a forklift operator in the private sector, a forklift operator in the public sector. Both have a high school diploma. Private sector forklift operator is moving furniture and boxes. Public sector forklift operator is taking nuclear-tipped torpedoes and loading them into a very tight area on a multibillion-dollar nuclear submarine, where one wrong move could have very dire implications.
Would you pay both people the same? No. So it underscores the difficulty when one looks and says, high school degree here, high school degree here, why is this one getting paid more? My answer to that would be, complexity of the work has got to be considered. [...] To me, unless you look at the complexity of the job, it becomes almost irrelevant.
Berry also said that a Veterans Affairs Department nurse may be treating much more complicated war wounds than a nurse in a private-sector hospital, which would justify higher pay.
He cautioned that OPM hasn’t had a chance to sit down with CBO and take a closer look at their methodology, and said they may have accounted for his concerns. But his gut reaction is that the human capital model CBO appears to have used “is certainly not going to help us to design a pay system.”
Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry’s plan to fix its longstanding pension processing problem got a relatively warm reception on Capitol Hill today. But there were some red flags raised, not least of which is the incredibly sprawling and antiquated set of IT systems and paper-based processes that the government relies upon to calculate new retirees’ pensions. OPM doesn’t have a real plan for straightening it out, the Government Accountability Office said, and needs to do more.
For example: OPM has 80 legacy systems that have to talk to roughly 400 other systems across the rest of the government, IG Patrick McFarland said. And those systems rely on roughly 3 million lines of custom code. If OPM decides to change or repair something in those systems, McFarland said, that is difficult to modify because the agency has to sift through all 3 million lines to find the one line in particular that needs tweaking.
Berry said some systems still even use COBOL, believe it or not, a dinosaur of a programming language that was first introduced 50 years ago.
As a result of all the IT problems, calculating pension payments is still largely a paper-and-pencil process — one that is made much more difficult when agencies don’t submit all the necessary documents. Which is what usually happens.
GAO’s Valerie Melvin also said that OPM’s plan “does not describe whether or how the agency intends to modify or decommission the over 80 legacy systems that support retirement processing.” She wants OPM to take a broader look at its overall IT system structure, and formulate a concrete plan for how it will straighten things out. ”There’s a lot more OPM can do,” Melvin said.
Senators on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs federal workforce subcommittee praised Berry for putting the plan forward, and IG McFarland said OPM is now on the right track.
But consultant George Nesterczuk, a former OPM official, blasted Berry for abandoning a full-scale, IT-based modernization of the retirement process and instead relying heavily on adding people. Although the previous administration’s Retirement Systems Modernization strategy that relied on commercial technologies crashed and burned in 2008, Nesterczuk said it “was a sound strategy and it should receive renewed consideration.”
In the meantime, pressure is mounting on OPM. Berry said OPM received 21,000 new retirement applications in January — traditionally the busiest month — which swelled the backlog to 62,000. But there was a bright spot last month — Berry said OPM processed 20 percent more cases this January than in January 2011, which he sees as proof the reforms are already taking hold.
He also pledged to report the size of the backlog to Congress on the fifth day of each month.
[Updated blog post to clarify that OPM's processing problems are a result of all of its IT difficulties.]