Feds on the road to nowhere

Friday - 2/10/2012, 2:00am EST

Senior Correspondent Mike Causey on In Depth with Francis Rose, discussing the Postal Service

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If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then the road you take to work may be paved (or repaved) with part of your federal pension dollars. In fact, the phrase "My way or the highway" has taken on a new meaning for frustrated federal and postal workers.

For more than a year now, influential politicians (most of them Republicans in the House) have been circling the federal retirement program.

At first, they wanted to workers to pay more and get less in benefits to help reduce the deficit. Now, they want workers to pay more and get less to help pave a highway near you. Or, if you saw this week's front page story (or any of the entire week's series) "Public Projects, Private Interests" in The Washington Post — our money may go to build, repair or widen a road near their home. Or business.

With rocket-like (for Congress) speed, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee voted (22-16) to raise employee contributions to the FERS program by 1.5 percent (0.5 percent a year for three years) to a total of 2.3 percent. CSRS workers contributions would rise from 7 percent to 8.5 percent. People hired after this year would also have their annuities based on their highest five-year average salary. The high-3 formula would not be changed for current workers. The committee plan would also eliminate a gap-filler payment the government now provides to employees who retire before they are eligible for Social Security benefits at age 62. For some workers that is worth thousands of dollars. The payments would continue for people in jobs that require them to retire at age 57.

(Actually the high-three or high-five is sort of a moot point as long as January federal pay raises are blocked. And especially if Congress decides to eliminate within-grade step increases, which give some workers a semi-automatic 3 percent increase every one, two or three years.)

The requirement that feds pay more of their CSRS and FERS retirement was a surprise insertion this week to the so-called Highway Bill in the House. But instead of being billed as a way to reduce the deficit, the higher-employee-pension plan payments would be used to help finance a national infrastructure plan.

Last year a variety of groups (either appointed by the President, appointed by the Vice President, set up in the House and appointed by both the House and Senate) tackled the deficit. Some made recommendations (the two-year federal pay freeze among them) then crashed, burned or simply adjourned. One of the favorite targets — an idea that keeps coming up — is the federal retirement program. Although members of Congress are part of it (with an enhanced pension payoff), many newcomers think the plan is too generous.

To fix it they want current and future workers to pay more for their benefits, and they want future feds to get smaller benefits. One plan would eliminate the civil service portion of the FERS program and force workers to finance their own retirement via Social Security and Thrift Savings Plan investments.

Meantime, a joint House-Senate bipartisan task force is working against a Feb. 29 deadline to come up with a list of spending cuts that would be presented to Congress for an up-or-down vote. Like its predecessors, this second "super committee" will consider a variety of changes (none of them to your liking) in the federal pay and benefits package.

Whether any the above will happen is anybody's guess. One school of thought is that nervous politicians believe they have to do something , or at least be perceived as having done something, before the election . Other "experts" say that because this is an election year, Congress will continue its partisan food fight and that will prevent anything — good or bad — from happening.


NEARLY USELESS FACTOID

According to the old saying, if you're exceedingly persuasive, you could talk the stripes off a zebra. But if you did that, it would probably be more susceptible to flies. Researchers recently discovered that bloodsucking horseflies typically find striped zebra hides less attractive than other types of pelts, LiveScience reports.


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Federal pensions up for debate in House highway bill
Federal employees would pay more toward their pensions and new employees would receive less generous retirement benefits under a House Republican plan to pay for highway programs. These cuts also are part of another stand-alone House bill.