Congress to feds: We feel your pain

Thursday - 2/16/2012, 2:10am EST

By Julia Ziegler
Web Manager
Federal News Radio

Federal employees are deeply impacted by the federal pay freeze and "fed bashing," according to an exclusive Federal News Radio survey. Lawmakers discuss the survey results and low morale in the federal workplace.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.)

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah)

Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.)

Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.)

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.)

More than 20 bills affecting federal employees' pay, benefits, and pensions have been introduced by members of Congress in the past year. Some call for the extension of the current pay freeze for anywhere from one to three more years. Others call for cuts to the size of the federal workforce through attrition.

"Our advice to the federal employees that we work with is that as difficult as times are, you need to batten the hatches because times are about to get much more tough," said Tom Fox, vice president of leadership and innovation at the Partnership for Public Service.

Just this week, a a deal was struck to extend the payroll tax cut and jobless benefits. The measure will be funded partly by increasing the amount new federal employees contribute to their pensions.

While Republicans and Democrats agree federal spending needs to be brought under control in order to rein in the growth of the national debt, currently at $15 trillion, they disagree over how much of the burden should be placed on the backs of federal employees.

"Because we've put ourselves into such a problem...because it's such a big mess, because the debt is so massive, it's going to make it more painful for the people who are here now," Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) told Federal News Radio. "There can't be root beer in every drinking fountain. There's not going to be bonuses, awards and pay raises for everyone. It's not going to happen or this country will go bankrupt."

Some Democrats, however, believe feds have already given enough.

"Federal employees had nothing to do with the economic downturn and yet many are looking to federal employees to disproportionately help solve the budget problem and that's just not fair," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). "My experience is that federal employees are willing to do their share but they want to see a sense of balance and proportion and fairness. What they're seeing, at least from some, is just a single-minded focus on cutting federal employees."

While many of the bills affecting federal employees come from members of the GOP, it was President Barack Obama who called for the current two-year pay freeze for civilian feds. His bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform (the Simpson-Bowles Commission) recommended a three-year pay freeze and decreasing the size of the federal workforce by 10 percent through attrition. It also called for changes to the Federal Employees Health Benefits program.

An exclusive Federal News Radio survey released this week, revealed just how much the proposals and legislation are taking their toll on the federal workforce. Managers and employees, alike, singled out the current two-year pay freeze and perceived "fed bashing" from members of Congress and the public as the top two reasons for low morale at their agencies.

"I think I've been very respectful and very appreciative of what the overwhelming majority of people do on a day-in and day-out basis to make our country better. They're doing what they're asked to do. They're patriotic in every way," Chaffetz said. "But people have to also understand that our government as a whole, not trying to pick on any one federal employee, but as a whole is going to have to figure out how to do more with less."

Doing more with less is something businesses have had to learn to do as well, said Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.).

"It's perhaps not unexepected but, face it, that's some of the same dynamics that folks are facing in the private sector," Mulvaney said when asked to respond to the results of Federal News Radio's survey. "In fact, folks in the private sector are dealing with an additional thing to fear and drive down their morale, which is losing their jobs, which is something that often doesn't factor into federal workers' considerations...so, I hear that complaint but, in the general scheme of things, it's not any different than it is in the private sector."

What does Congress expect from feds?

President Obama released his proposed 2013 budget earlier this week detailing areas of potential savings and cuts to some programs. The budget also calls for reductions in staffing levels at some agencies.

Now the attention turns to Congress, as it gets set to debate the President's proposed plan and offer suggestions of its own. Congressman Chaffetz said this is a great opportunity for agencies to show how important their individual programs are.

"Don't assume everybody knows what you do," Chaffetz said. "You've go to be able to tell your story and explain to people what you do and how you do it and why it's a benefit because a lot of things are very expensive and, in these times of cuts, something's got to go."

Members of Congress from both parties also agree on the need to find more efficiencies in government. What they disagree on is how those efficiencies are reached and how far they go.

(View a larger, interactive version of this budget chart by clicking here.)

"I firmly believe that essential government functions need to be provided by essential government workers who perform well and are compensated well," said Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.). "I think these managers will have to start looking at how they can perform their obligations, their tasks, with the best, the brightest and the most motivated. It's a weeding out process, unfortunately, but that's what's going to have to happen."

Congressman Van Hollen said he worries about what too many cuts could mean for a workforce that is already feeling stretched.

"I think all of us have to look for ways to do our work more efficiently. That's true whether you're in the public sector or the private sector," Van Hollen said. "We need to be creative about different ways to provide for the services that are delivered. On the other hand, there is a limit to what people can do as their resources get cut. You can only gain so much through efficiency before you're actually going to get worse service."

Fox said this also is an opportunity for agency managers to step up to the plate.

"If you're continuing to face declining budgets and increasing expectations, either from the public or from Congress, or even the administration, the first thing you can do is say, 'Is there a way for us to achieve these same goals but go about it in a very different fashion?' You can call it innovation, you can call it process improvement, you can call it any number of different things. But, the bottom line is, can you, as a leader, find a way to marshal the very best ideas to find new ways of achieving on those very high expectations? After that then...comes the time to figure out, do we need to prioritize differently?"

Energy Department Chief Human Capital Officer Michael Kane echoed that statement but said it's also important for agency managers to involve employees in the process.

"One thing we can sit down and say is, 'The budget is going to be relatively flat. And we are going to have to prioritize where we're going to invest'...People, if they're given involvement, will say, 'Yes, I can do more with less. Here's what I can do...'"

If the number of bills currently floating through Congress is any indication, more changes for federal employees are likely on the way. Despite Congress' role in those changes, members on both sides of the aisle want federal employees to know they respect and value the work they do.

"This is the finest civil service in the world," said Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.). "It's the least corrupt, most effective and trustworthy."

"I want to be sensitive to all the federal employees — a lot of good patriotic people who are doing good, hard work. They want to progress and not slide backward just like everybody else," said Chaffetz. "But, we also have to understand the reality of the economic situation that we've put ourselves into and that, the reality is, we can't sustain it. It's going to have to change. I'm just trying to be as honest and candid as I can possibly be."

MORE FROM THE MANAGING MORALE SERIES:

How the military gets motivation right (column)

Federal morale deeply impacted by pay freeze, fed bashing

Managing morale: lessons from OPM's John Berry (column)

Pay and Benefits Bill Tracker (chart)

2008-2013 Spending Levels (chart)