With budget release, OMB seeks stability for federal workforce

Thursday - 3/6/2014, 7:26pm EST

OMB Deputy Director Brian Deese on "In Depth with Francis Rose"

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The Office of Management and Budget says the President's fiscal 2015 budget proposal released this week represents an attempt to move beyond the budget gridlock of the past few years.

"This budget provides some certainty and clarity in an effort to hopefully move us back to more of an orderly budget process, which I think helps our agencies operate more efficiently and could provide some stability for our federal workforce as well," said OMB Deputy Director Brian Deese in an interview on In Depth with Francis Rose as part of Federal News Radio's special report, Now or Never: Ideas to Save the Failing Budget Process .

But that's not the only reason federal employees and their advocates have welcomed the Obama administration's budget.

The proposal calls for a 1 percent pay raise for federal civilian workers "who worked with professionalism and skill through a very difficult period over the last couple of years, through the sequester, several years of a pay freeze and then a 16-day shutdown at the end of last year," Deese added.

The budget request also seeks to expand funding for federal-employee training, which has been largely gutted by across-the-board sequestration cuts.

"There are a number of reforms in terms of improving the way that government operates that I think will put federal employees in the position that they want to be in, which is giving them more tools and more capacity to deliver the kind of world-class service that they signed up for public service to do," Deese said.

For example, the proposal includes new funding to create a better onboarding program for members of the Senior Executive Service and to enhance SES leadership training. In addition, the budget would fund several new demonstration projects aimed at improving federal recruiting and hiring to fill critical skills gaps.

Budget now in Congress' hands

Obama's proposed budget is now in Congress' hands.

The administration is hopeful lawmakers will consider the proposal and "fund agencies without drama and without crisis," Deese said.

"We've seen in stark terms how uncertainty and instability can undermine the function of government," he said, citing the two-week government shutdown in October, during which thousands of federal employees were furloughed without the certainty they would ever be paid for the forced time off. Congress later authorized backpay for federal workers.

"My hope is that one of the things we learn and take away collectively from that is providing some stability and certainty — and trying to get back to a budget process that isn't defined by a constant series of crises — is in all of our interests," he added.

Deese said the administration is doing its part to come up with ways to improve the way individual agency programs are funded.

For example, the budget proposes to overhaul the way the federal government allocates agency resources used for fighting wildfires.

"That sounds like an archaic issues," Deese said. "But what happens in practice, particularly at the Department of Interior and the Department of Agriculture, is every year in the summer, they are forced to take money away from programs to pay for fighting wildfires, and then they are forced to go back and refund that money later."

That haphazard process "completely destabilizes" the work of employees in both agencies, he said.

"So, if you're a federal employee working on a long-term forest-preservation program, and every year the resources for that program are taken away and then have to be funded later, you can't plan," Deese said. "You can't have a long-term strategy. You can't be effective, and it costs more over the long term."

The budget proposes allowing USDA and Interior to set up and draw funds from a special wildfire account. That is similar to how the government currently funds hurricane and tornado response efforts.

Deese: Biennial budgeting 'worth looking into'

There's no shortage of ideas for fixing the fractured federal budget process. A number of experts told Federal News Radio they support switching to a biennial budget cycle to reduce the disruptions frequently caused by the annual appropriations process and allow policymakers to chart a more forward-thinking spending agenda.

A bill to switch the government to two-year budget cycles, introduced by Rep. Reid Ribble (R-Wis.), has garnered more than 140 co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle and recently got the stamp of approval from the House Budget Committee.

Deese said he thinks it's an idea worth looking into, but it shouldn't be mistaken for a panacea.

"One of the questions that you've got to answer is: What are the problems that you are trying to solve?"

There could be some cases where a longer-term budget process might not be the most effective way to fund programming, "because you're creating situations where you might need to have decision points more frequently," he explained.

On the other hand, there is already at least one indication that a longer-term framework is desirable: The bipartisan budget deal overwhelmingly passed by Congress late last year that provided a two-year discretionary-spending blueprint for agencies.

Biennial budgeting remains an idea "worth digging into," Deese said. "And my hope is that as we do return to a bit of a more orderly process, we'll have more of a space to have a real conversation about ideas like that."

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