- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 28, 2002

A General Accounting Office study due out sometime this summer may make you want to pack a parachute when you take your next business or vacation flight.

It's expected to point to a looming "human capital" crisis in the air traffic controller community. Controllers are to flying what water is to fish. Very necessary.

"Human capital" is government-speak for "people." It is used by people (why shouldn't we call them "human capitalists"?) who think it sounds better. Like saying "limb" instead of "leg."

But human capital means people. Flesh-and-blood types who, instead of going to work for Enron or as morticians, decide to become GS 7s and GS 15s. Human capital refers to smart, competent, dedicated people. The type who can be trusted to do their jobs and who are more than we know entrusted with our health, safety and, often, our lives.

All four terrorist attacks on September 11 came from the air. That, despite all the precautions in the world, could happen again. Air traffic controllers are likely to be the first to spot trouble and call in help.

The GAO report is expected to say that the nation needs more and better people running the system, especially since retirements are expected to peak over the next three years. Spend a couple of hours in a busy control tower or center and you'll agree that's one operation where you don't want the low-bidder, paying minimum wage, doing the job.

Life begins at 50

At least the investing part of it.

Under last year's tax law, nonfederal investors can put extra money into their 401(k) plans for as long as they work and invest via payroll deduction.

This year, the maximum extra or catch-up contributions allowed are $1,000. That goes up $1,000 each year until 2006 when anybody 50 or older (now or later) can max out and put in an extra $5,000.

One significant group of investors has been left out federal employees, postal workers and members of the uniformed military services. Because their Thrift Savings Plan rules are controlled by Congress, they aren't yet allowed to make catch-up contributions. But that could, should, change.

Rep. Constance A. Morella, Maryland Republican, has introduced a bill to allow TSP investors (including members of Congress) to make catch-up contributions. Sens. John W. Warner, Virginia Republican, and Daniel K. Akaka, Hawaii Democrat, are co-sponsoring a similar bill.

The White House and congressional leaders like it. The stumbling block is the Congressional Budget Office. It wants Congress to be very sure it understands how much tax revenue will be lost (as in delayed) by extending to feds and military personnel a benefit already enjoyed by most American investors.

Once the benefit is extended to TSP investors, then workers under the old Civil Service Retirement System would this year be able to invest $1,000 in addition to any existing dollar or percentage ceilings. Same for those under the Federal Employees Retirement System.

They could invest $1,000 this year, $2,000 next year and up to $5,000 in 2006 and each year thereafter. That would put 50-plus investors in and out of government in a situation where they could invest $20,000 per year total in their 401(k) plans, while the under-50 crowd is limited to a $15,000 investment ceiling.

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