- The Washington Times - Monday, January 23, 2006

Some federal workers spend much of their careers worrying about what “they” will do to them. The “they” can be the White House, Congress or outside blue-ribbon panels or commissions who take a whack at pay or perks.

Layoffs — known in governmentese as Reductions in Force or RIFs — are rare in the government. The last big round, which hit about 30,000 civil servants over a period of several years, came during the Clinton administration. It was a time of downsizing, but most of the chopping involved regular attrition or payment of $25,000 buyouts to retirement-eligible employees.

Health insurance premiums for federal and postal workers have gone up, but not as much as those in the private sector — assuming the company even has a health plan. The federal health program is still cradle to grave, even though many private firms routinely cut off retirees. Although health premiums continue to rise each year, the government (by law) continues to pay more than 70 percent of the total premium. That benefit, by the way, helps out members of Congress who are insured by the federal employee health program.

Despite annual warnings that pay or pensions will be frozen, it has been years since that happened. The same is true for pending benefit cuts that never happen.

A favorite scare tactic aimed at feds is the threat that retirement benefits, now based on the employee’s highest three-year average salary, will be changed back to a “high-five” formula. That is one of those ideas that surfaces just about every year in budget-cutting proposals. But it hasn’t happened and never has come close to a vote. Any such change is unlikely for several reasons. Among them are that the savings would be small (as would the impact on individual workers) and that the change wouldn’t show up for years.

Folks who love to torture feds, for fun or for perceived political gain, keep recycling a rumor that is nearing its 50th birthday. This one, which has been updated (to keep pace with inflation) often takes the form of a bogus “news” story. Whereas it once made the rounds via snail mail, or fax machine, it now can be sent to thousands of people in the twinkle of an eye, via e-mail. The rumor speaks about a “secret” plan — which is so secret it is unknown to Congress, the White House and the media — to force feds to convert from one retirement plan to another and to lure people to retire with huge bonuses (hah) or enhanced retirement rules (also hah).

The president’s budget is due next month. It may contain proposals to cut payroll costs. And while people always should be on guard, that doesn’t mean that panic is necessary. Or helpful.

During the year, several congressional operations will come up with lists of ways to save money. These include the highly unpopular proposal (that someone makes every year) to eliminate the tax break for home mortgage interest, along with plans to trim some civil service benefits. The fact that they are dusted off, raised up the flagpole and then quietly buried year after year seems to be lost on some people who ought to know better.

The other fact of life is that while the vast majority of feds outside the U.S. Postal Service do not belong to unions or professional organizations, most of those groups have very effective lobbying operations. They don’t grease politicians’ palms with money like some in-the-news lobbyists, but they have been very effective at fending off things that would hurt federal workers and retirees. The unions also are adept at winning lawsuits that have resulted in multimillion-dollar, across-the-board, back-pay settlements. And they currently are harassing — with some success — the Defense Department as it moves slowly toward implementation of a pay-for-performance system.

As more companies go belly up, convince employees to take pay cuts and/or eliminate pension plans, 401(k) plan contributions and health insurance, the government — for all its warts — looks like a very good place to work to a lot of people.

Mike Causey, senior editor at Federal News Radio AM 1050, can be reached at 202/895-5132 or [email protected]

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