2014 budget battle lines drawn around federal pay, benefits

Thursday - 3/14/2013, 6:09pm EDT

When it comes to the federal workforce, the competing House and Senate fiscal year 2014 budget plans differ greatly in tone and substance.

One says federal workers are overpaid and unfairly benefit from a too-generous retirement package. The other says federal employees have "borne the brunt" of recent spending reductions through a pay freeze and the threat of furloughs.

But when it comes to making the federal government run more efficiently and finding cost-savings in federal operations, the two plans are more alike than you might think.

House takes aim at familiar targets

The latest House proposal — authored and championed by Rep. Paul Ryan (R- Wis.) — expresses skepticism about the pay levels earned by federal workers and suggests they should contribute more toward their retirements.

"Federal workers deserve to be compensated equitably for their important work, but their pay levels, pay increases, and fringe benefits should be reformed to better align with those of their private-sector counterparts," the plan stated.

But the 2014 proposal is generally vague when it comes to specifics.

In last year's proposal, Ryan proposed upping employees' share of their pension contributions to more evenly match the government's share.

The 2014 budget plan calls for federal employees "to make greater contributions toward their own retirement," in keeping with recommendations from the 2010 Simpson-Bowles deficit commission, but is short on specifics beyond that.

The latest proposal is also silent on the issue of extending the federal pay freeze.

The Ryan budget last year proposed extending the freeze — in place since the beginning of 2011 — through 2015.

This year's proposal does, however, argue that feds are overpaid, citing a 2012 Congressional Budget Office study that found federal employees earn 16 percent more in total compensation than private-sector workers.

The GOP plan "would begin to rectify that imbalance," the document stated, aiming to save an estimated $132 million over 10 years.

Ryan and House Republicans also take aim at the size of the federal workforce.

"The reforms called for in this budget aim to slow the federal government's unsustainable growth, and reflect the growing frustration of workers across the country at the privileged rules enjoyed by government employees," the plan stated.

By 2015, the plan aims to reduce the size of the federal workforce by 10 percent through a "gradual, sensible attrition policy," according to the budget plan.

Senate's response zeroes in on contractors

Earlier this week, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) unveiled the Senate's response to the Ryan plan, which took a very different tack when it comes to the federal workforce.

"These workers have borne the brunt of recent deficit reduction efforts, with years of pay freezes and many workers facing furloughs in the coming months caused by the indiscriminate and untargeted sequestration cuts," the plan stated.

In fact, the Senate's budget plan suggests that it isn't federal workers who are overpaid, but contractors.

The Senate plan recommends contracting-reform savings, such as "explor[ing] opportunities to better leverage the federal government's buying power" — ostensibly a reference to strategic sourcing — and reviewing contractor compensation costs as a "smarter approach to savings," than the Republican plan.

On Thursday, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) successfully added three amendments to the Senate budget bill.

The first amendment supports legislation that would speed up the processing and reduce the backlog of retirement benefits by the Office of Personnel Management.

"In the coming years, OPM will continue to face an ever growing number of federal employees who will be eligible to retire, and we can and should do better in processing the benefits they have earned," Warner said in a release. "We need to do all that we can to help prepare OPM to effectively handle its important responsibilities in a more timely manner."

Warner's second amendment promotes greater transparency in federal spending by improving and expanding government websites and data standards.

The third amendment aims to eliminate or modify duplicative reports mandated by Congress.

"I know the elimination of duplicate reports represents a relatively small amount of savings in relation to our total federal budget, but if we cobble together enough of these commonsense savings, it adds up," Warner said.

The Senate Budget Committee, which Murray chairs, passed the proposed budget plan in a 12-10, party-line vote Thursday night. The bill is expected to be voted on by the full Senate sometime next week.

Areas of agreement