What federal employees should look for in 2012

Wednesday - 1/4/2012, 3:56pm EST

By Jack Moore
Federal News Radio

Federal employees may be glad to flip the calendar over to 2012. While last year was an interesting one for budget watchers, it was often nothing short of nerve-wracking for federal employees.

Amid the partisan wrangling, near shutdowns and crises averted were serious proposals to reduce the federal workforce, rework its benefits and retirement structures, and lock in stagnant pay rates for another year or two.

Federal workers' groups, unions and other organizations predict, though, that 2012 may not be all that different. In fact, it may be more of the same.

From budget cuts to pay and benefits on the negotiating table, here's what to look for in 2012.

John Palguta, vice president for policy at the Partnership for Public Service, said many of the issues federal employees will face in 2012 are interrelated. Here are some of the issues he highlighted:
  • "The federal budget situation and the need to find ways to reduce the budget deficit will continue to be a major issue for federal employees — and not in a good way."

  • "Since for much of 2012 the presidential race will be underway, federal employees can expect to be targeted directly and/or indirectly in the campaigns."

  • "An increase in federal retirements compared to the last few years will place additional burdens on the federal workforce."

  • "Since federal employees cannot do business as usual and also handle the growing workload and flat or shrinking budgets, 2012 will also see an increase in efforts to rethink or re-engineer the way work is done and it may also see an increased interest in civil service reform."

Coping with 2012 funding levels

In most recent years, the federal government has operated under piecemeal continuing resolutions well into the fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1.

But this year, Congress was able to muster through funding for 2012 more quickly and efficiently in the "minibus," which contained three appropriations bills, and a larger appropriations package approved in December.

The relief that lawmakers had struck a deal and averted a shutdown overshadowed the fact that some agencies were doled out much less than the administration requested — and even less than what they received last year.

In an interview with Federal News Radio, National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen Kelley singled out the budget for the Internal Revenue Service — which, at $11.8 billion is $305 million below its current level and a substantial $1.5 billion less than what the White House requested.

Fewer resources for the IRS will have a snowball effect because the agency is responsible for bringing in much of the government's revenue to pay for other federal spending, Kelley said. "The VA, homeland security and fill-in-the-blank," she said.

"I think the American public will see some impacts," Kelley added. "I think they're going to see agencies not able to deliver the level of service that the American public has come to expect and should be able to expect from federal agencies."

So how will agencies cope? Not by doing "business as usual," said John Palguta, the vice president for policy at the Partnership for Public Service.

"Many agencies will have to make some tough choices in terms of programs to downsize or even eliminate," said the longtime observer of the federal government and workforce in email. "There will be continued efforts to find more efficient ways to operate and efforts to find cost-savings wherever possible."

But Palguta said some agencies have already trimmed most of the fat out of their organizations. Anything further risks a "breakdown" in agencies' ability to do their jobs, he added.

2013 budget: Formality or futility?

There is still at least another month or so before the White House releases its doorstopper of a budget request for 2013.

In August, the Office of Management and Budget mandated agencies' 2013 budget submissions contain options for cutting as much as 10 percent compared to 2011 levels.

OMB Director Jack Lew said in October that agencies have been motivated by a "sense of realism," in trimming their budgets.

Despite the federal government's best planning, a wrench has already been thrown into 2013 budget planning: sequestration.

Following the Budget Control Act, Congress created a 12-member "supercommittee," made up of both Democrats and Republicans to come up with as much as $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction. The committee's failure to reach agreement triggered automatic cuts, known as sequestration, set to take effect next year. The $1.2 trillion in across-the-board cuts — split evenly between the Defense Department and civilian agencies — will take place over 10 years.