- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 27, 2002

Is the Bush administration push for management "flexibility" in the proposed new Department of Homeland Security a routine response to an emergency situation or an effort to bust government unions?

Backers of the proposal say the White House simply wants the authority given every other president since Jimmy Carter to exempt employees in national security jobs from collective bargaining and union representation.

They say it has been used 11 times including at least once by President Clinton since the 1970s without any public hue and cry. They claim that politicians mostly Democrats but including Rep. Constance A. Morella, Maryland Republican are using the issue to play politics or simply don't understand history.

Opponents of the plan to give managers more flexibility to hire, move, promote, pay, punish and terminate DHS workers say it will put two of the government's biggest white-collar unions out of business.

Agencies that would become part of the DHS include some of the most unionized and organized in government, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the U.S. Border Patrol and the U.S. Customs Service. The American Federation of Government Employees Union and the National Treasury Employees Union draw many of their members and much of their legislative clout from those three agencies.

People on both sides of the argument hope a settlement can be reached on differing House and Senate versions of the DHS legislation.

The Senior Executives Association has proposed a compromise that would allow employees transferred to the DHS to temporarily keep their union rights and protections unless their jobs are specifically related to national security. It would maintain those rights for one year, after which they would have to be renegotiated.

Meanwhile, the homeland security issue, which one congressional staffer described as "the blob that ate Capitol Hill," has put a hold on action on half a dozen key federal-retiree legislative issues. Any (but not all) of them could be enacted at the last minute either as free-standing legislation or, more likely, as a "rider" on some otherwise vetoproof bill.

They include:

•Premium conversion

This is a simple equity issue. It would extend to federal retirees a perk already available to federal and postal workers the ability to pay health insurance premiums in pretax dollars.

The effect would be to lower taxable income, reducing taxes anywhere from $200 to $500 a year. With higher health premiums on the way any extra dollars made available to retirees will help. Retirees are looking at a cost of living adjustment of around 1 percent next January compared with the likely 4.1 percent raise federal workers will get.

cSocial security offset/windfall

Under the so-called offset formula federal retirees, and teachers and other public employees, can lose most or all of the spousal (or survivor) benefit due them under Social Security. Various bills that would repeal or modify the formula (to let them keep at least part of the Social Security benefit) are pending.

There are also proposals to modify, or eliminate, the so-called windfall formula. It can reduce (but not eliminate) the earned Social Security benefit of Civil Service Retirement System retirees by as much as about $270 per month. The bills have lots of cosponsors and all they need is a vehicle to hitchhike to the White House (and a lot of luck getting a ride).

•50 plus TSP catch-up

The White House, most congressional Republicans and most Democrats favor legislation that would let feds 50 years old and older to make catch-up contributions to their Thrift Savings Plan accounts.

Most other American workers (who are 50 or older) can already do it. But Congress must change rules covering the Thrift Savings Plan before the catch-up contributions $2,000 next year and $5,000 in the year 2006 and thereafter are authorized for the TSP.

The lost tax revenue has been accounted for in the president's budget and approved by the Joint Congressional Committee on Taxation. But the Congressional Budget Office has put what amounts to a hold on the bill pending an explanation from Congress as to where that revenue shortfall will be made up.

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