Election-year survival kit — for politicians

Tuesday - 1/31/2012, 2:00am EST

Self-proclaimed insiders (reporters, lobbyists, think tankers and clairvoyants who specialize in the congressional thought process) are happy. They believe the joint House-Senate committee is close to an election-year special that you're gonna hate: It will be, they believe, a deal that will extend the Social Security payroll tax reduction and unemployment benefits through this year.

Although all similar efforts failed last year — as committees, commissions and blue ribbon panels came up dry — many of the insiders believe the bipartisan committee will meet its Feb. 29 deadline.

According to the plan, the bipartisan committee is supposed to produce a series of take-it-or-leave-it proposals. They will result in savings that will offset the huge loss of revenue from the payroll tax reduction and extending unemployment benefits.

Some of those cuts — if Congress buys them — will almost certainly come out of your hide: A longer pay freeze, substituting the high-five as your retirement calculator, making early retirement (prior to age 62) much costlier, gradually raising your portion of health premium costs or gradually reducing inflation adjustments for retirees.

Lobbyists representing federal and postal workers, managers and retirees mostly believe the two biggest long-time hits to workers and retirees would be any change in the way the retiree COLA (cost-of-living adjustment) is determined or legislation that would force workers and retirees to pay a larger chunk of their total health premium each year. Currently nonpostal workers and retirees pay about 30 percent of their premiums with the government picking up the rest. The Postal Service and FDIC pay a larger portion of worker premiums. Shifting to a voucher system — where people had a fixed amount to spend on premiums — would gradually increase their share and, as planned, drive them into less expensive plans.

But some workers and retirees, at least those we've heard from, have a different set of fears. Monday's column included details on the threats to their pay, benefits and pensions and asked them to name their poison.

Here's some of the comments we got:

  • Linda at the IRS said:
    "I would rather have them eliminate the cash supplement for FERS employees who voluntarily retire before age 62. The one I fear most," she said, "is the voucher system for medical. (I think this one would jeopardize the ability to pay for medical insurance at some point in the future.")

  • Jonathan S., had an overall comment on the anti-fed momentum in Congress: "If, and it's a big if, some or all of these items pass, could it unleash the flood of people who retire from government? I keep waiting, and the overhang of people who can leave, but don't leave, keeps growing."

  • M, who described herself as a Fed-Up Fed at EPA, said:
    "I feel your lesser-of-evils pain! Thought we'd all outgrown and given up that game of yuck. But no — this is the grown-up equivalent for us punching bag feds. These days, it's a fun fantasy to think that Congress may first, make a useful decision, and second not make us dedicated feds pay quite so much for their collective ineptitude. ( I'm trying to be nice here, though someone please explain to me why Congress deserves even that...)

    In order of the least-painful to most (for me) I would choose:

    First, basing future retirement benefits on the high-five average salary, followed by an extension of the current two-year pay freeze ... then set up a voucher system to purchase health insurance ... adoption of the revised formula that would reduce (by an estimated 0.4 percent each year) future COLAs for retirees and finally, eliminating the cash supplement for FERS retirees who voluntarily retire before age 62. The last two items tie for the havoc they would wreak on those of us looking forward to a happy retirement at 60 after YEARS of dedicated service.

    AS if we really have a choice! But thank you for the fun thought-game."


NEARLY USELESS FACTOID

By Jack Moore

Dryer lint — the gray fuzzies that collect in the dryer — can actually be used to start a life-saving fire in the wilderness, according to Life's Little Mysteries. Would-be survivalists should mix the lint with a scoop of petroleum jelly and seal it in a plastic baggie. "The flame from a single match will ignite and the lint will burn for ample time while you add wood to your fire," per the website.