Democratic lawmakers trying to beat back another federal pay freeze

Thursday - 12/15/2011, 5:40am EST

Jason Miller, executive editor, Federal News Radio

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Congressional Democrats and federal employee unions are going out in force to beat back another push to extend the pay freeze for agency workers for another year.

Lawmakers from Maryland and Virginia held a conference call with reporters Wednesday to dispute the House provisions in the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act. The House passed bill includes provisions to freeze federal employee pay through Dec. 31, 2013, increase federal employee contributions to both the Civil Service Retirement System and the Federal Employee Retirement System by half a percentage point each year starting in 2013 through 2015 and changing the process by which new employees are eligible for the retirement system.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.)

"The single biggest cut they made is to federal employees, $65 billion of the approximately $200 billion in cuts to offset other parts of the bill will come from federal employees — the men and women who work every day on behalf of the country," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), ranking member of the Budget Committee. "And it's part of their cynical ploy to make scapegoats out of federal employees."

The House passed the bill Tuesday 234-193, but the Senate decided not to take up the bill, thus killing this version of the bill.

The provision in the bill to freeze federal pay, including members of Congress, and it would save $26 billion and the changes to federal retirement processes would save $36 billion, according to a release from House Speaker John Boehner's office.

Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.)said in a speech Thursday morning that he was "deeply disappointed" at the attacks on federal employees.

"A belief in smaller government does not grant one license to diminish the contributions made by those who serve in government," Hoyer said.

More legislation coming

But lawmakers warn this would not be the last time lawmakers put in riders in bills to cut or freeze federal pay and benefits.

"It's likely in the next 24 to 48 to 72 hours, decisions are going to be made as to how to offset the costs of not just the payroll tax issue, but also perhaps unemployment insurance, maybe the extender package," said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.). "We want to make sure the federal workforce is not the scapegoat of those types of legislation."

A request for comment from Boehner's office on the accusations from Van Hollen and other Democrats that federal employees are being used as scapegoats was not returned.

Boehner (R-Ohio) has not made any recent comments about changes to federal employee pay or benefits. He said in February during the 2011 continuing resolution negotiations that if federal employees lose their jobs, so be it.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.)

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said federal employees have been unfairly and consistently singled out by Republicans.

"If we are going to have shared sacrifice, let's see who else shares. But so far, almost consistently, the one group singled out for sacrifice are federal employees," he said. "It's not right. It does not reflect a value system worthy of a great country. I think it actually does damage to the whole concept of public service. It will hurt us in recruitment and retention in the future and it is a part of the national debate that needs to be fought tooth and nail."

The White House has come out against the House version of the bill, but didn't say anything specific about the provisions that would affect to federal employees. In the Statement of Administration Policy for an early version of the Senate bill, the White House said the offsets would be "paid for by unbalanced cuts that would break a bipartisan deal achieved in August and would undermine the nation's ability to invest in areas that are key to America's future, to maintain core government functions and to defend the United States."

A request to the Office of Management and Budget for further comment was not returned.

Unions encourage more support

Employee unions are sending letters to members of Congress encouraging them to rescind any potentially adverse provisions in the bill.

John Gage, president, American Federation of Government Employees (afge.org)

"Speaker Boehner doesn't want to extend the payroll tax at all," said John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees. "This is a plan designed to raise taxes on the VA nursing assistants who care for wounded warriors, the Defense civilian employees who support our military troops at home and abroad, the Social Security claims representatives who process benefit payments to our nation's seniors and the many thousands of employees who protect our borders, skies, food supply and infrastructure. This proposal by House Republicans is even more draconian than the Senate Republican proposal, which has been soundly defeated twice by a bipartisan majority of lawmakers."

The National Treasury Employees Union said they were angered by the House's decision to ignore federal middle class workers.

"This is a message to those who guard our borders, protect our air and water, safeguard our retirement, inspect our food and drugs, assist our veterans, that the Republican leadership would rather cut their pay and retirement than raise taxes even a tiny amount on the ultra rich," Kelley said. "A payroll tax holiday, designed to put more money in the hands of working Americans, is an important and much-needed economic stimulus," she said. "When you freeze the pay and increase the pension contributions of federal employees around the country, you defeat the purpose of the stimulus."

Julie Tagen, legislative director for the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, which sponsored the press call, said Congress may have to work through the weekend to agree on both the middle class tax cut bill and another continuing resolution.

Pay freeze affects people outside Washington

Jenny Votapka, a 35-year Agriculture Department's Forest Service employee in Montana, said the ongoing battles in Congress is having a big effect outside of Washington.

"We are really having hard time with that pay cut," she said. "We feel we've been abandoned. We are a punching bag and we are being beat up constantly. I've seen some people in tears. It really hurts. I really love my job, but we just can't put up with it anymore."

Votapka said three of five people in her office are considering retirement or are retiring because of the constant feeling of being beaten up.

She said he has written letters to her members of Congress asking them to support federal employees, but she received only form letters in return.

Cardin said he too has tried to reach out to his colleagues to explain the impact on federal employees isn't limited to Washington.

"I've talked to them about income levels of federal employees, comparable pay based on recent reports," Cardin said. "I have very much brought this issue up in every forum I can, but it's timely now."

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