Good time to watch your back

Thursday - 10/27/2011, 2:00am EDT

The day after President Abraham Lincoln was murdered at Ford's Theater, a Washington newspaper reporter (according to local legend) asked Mrs. Lincoln: "Other than that, how did you enjoy the play?"

That's probably not true. But it's something for federal workers to keep in mind as the deadline nears for the deficit-reduction supercommittee to make its report.

The bipartisan, House-Senate group has been charged with coming up with billions of dollars in savings — from all areas of the government — to help get the government out of debt. Republicans and Democrats have said that everything is on the table, except taxes and entitlements. Which doesn't leave much on the table.

What is very much still on the table, up for grabs are possible major reforms/cuts in the federal pay and benefits package. State and local governments around the country are already making major cuts in their expenditures. This includes layoffs and furloughs.

Politicians who, as recently as 2009, treated feds well, have changed. In large part because they've seen the toll the recession (and reduced tax revenue) has taken on more numerous, and closer-to-home state and local government workers. The mayor of St. Louis told NPR that he was able to avoid a two-day furlough of city employees only because of the extra sales tax revenue generated by the World Series games played there. That's cutting it pretty close.

With some notable — and powerful — exceptions, federal and postal workers don't have many friends in Congress these days. Many, if not most, members of the House and Senate who say they know, understand and like feds represent districts or states in and around Washington, D.C.

A few weeks ago the House Government Oversight and Reform Committee's majority recommended a laundry list of hits for current and future federal employees. It includes extending the current pay freeze through 2015, basing future pensions on an employee's highest five-year salary, and raising employee contributions to their retirement fund — 6.2 percent for FERS and an an additional 3 percent for CSRS workers. Those would be permanent cuts in take-home pay.

Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) would like to see the 27-year old FERS retirement plan revamped for new workers. Under his proposal, there would be no civil service retirement benefit for new hires. It would be replaced by a mandatory defined contribution 401(k) plan.

Other ideas being considered for federal and postal workers include a limited hiring freeze that would permit agencies to replace only one employee for every three who quit, retire or die.

The good news (and this is all relative) is that nobody is talking about two items that were floated earlier: Changing the yardstick used to measure inflation to produce smaller retiree COLAs in the future, and another plan to gradually increase (to around 50 percent) the employee-retiree share of health premiums. Current feds pay only about 30 percent. Postal workers pay even less.

The deficit committee is due to report next month. So between Halloween and Thanksgiving, feds are going to be hearing some potentially scary stuff.

So other than that, how do you like the play so far?


NEARLY USELESS FACTOID

By Jack Moore

Scientists have long described the dramatic genetic similarities — as in almost identical — between humans and chimpanzees. But anyone with a pair of eyes knows there are clear differences in appearance, form and behavior. So, what gives? ScienceDaily reports scientists have discovered gaps in DNA near genes that could determine how much a specific gene is "turned on" or "off." The gaps are made up of material called retrotransposons and were formerly thought only to be junk DNA. Well, you know what they say: One man's junk is a chimpanzee's ...


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