The bills on the Hill go round and round

Each year, when the wheels of Congress start turning, members of Congress roll out legislation aimed at improving federal pay and benefits.

Some of the bills get spun out in committee hearings. A few actually hit the pavement on Pennsylvania Avenue and go up to the President's desk to become law, usually tucked into big appropriations bills. Most proposals, however, get stuck like pebbles in the treads of Congress' wheels.

This year, the roll-out of legislation has begun, mostly of proposals that have been introduced in previous sessions of Congress.

Rep. Connie Morella, R-Md., has introduced a bill (H.R. 208) that would allow new federal employees to roll over contributions from private-sector 401(k) programs into the Thrift Savings Plan and allow them to immediately begin participation in the TSP. She will also push a bill to allow many federal employees to contribute more money to their Thrift Savings Plan accounts, her chief of staff said this month. Morella introduced similar bills in the 104th and 105th Congresses.

Rep. Joe Scarborough, R-Fla., has introduced a bill (H.R. 416) to fix pension problems for up to 20,000 federal employees who were placed in the wrong retirement plans by their agencies. Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., offered the same bill last year. It passed the House, but the Senate didn't pick it up.

This year's bill will be marked up by the House Government Reform Committee next Wednesday. It will then be sent to the House floor. A Senate Governmental Affairs Committee staffer said the issue is on the committee's agenda for later in the session. Some affected employees have been waiting for years for the Office of Personnel Management and Congress to come up with a fix.

The chances for long-term care insurance for federal employees got a boost earlier this year when President Clinton announced a new insurance program for federal employees as part of a larger initiative to make life easier for people who must care for family members over extended periods of time. Clinton's proposal has been introduced in both the House (H.R. 110) and the Senate (S. 57).

Clinton's proposal isn't the first to try to deal with the issue. Last year, Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., proposed a long-term care insurance program for federal employees.

Other pay and benefits bills that ran out of gas in 1998 have not yet been reintroduced, but congressional staffers for the sponsors of many previous bills said federal employees can expect to see similar proposals this year. They include:

  • Raising the cap on overtime pay for supervisory and other professional workers. The cap limits overtime pay to GS-10, Step 1, less than what most supervisors make during regular time. Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., asked OPM to write up a proposal for addressing the problem this month.
  • Alleviating pay compression in the Senior Executive Service. Across the country, executives at up to four levels of the executive schedule receive the same pay, making promotions virtually meaningless. The Senior Executives Association is trying to spark interest in ideas that would give executives a pay boost.
  • Granting agencies permanent buyout authority. The Clinton administration is pushing the idea of allowing agencies to offer buyouts whenever they want to, rather than having to seek special permission from Congress first. The buyout idea, which has been run up the flagpole before, is part of a larger civil service reform package the administration is drafting. A civil service reform plan in 1995 went flat on Capitol Hill.
  • Increasing spousal Social Security benefits for federal retirees. Under current law, the pension offset reduces a federal retiree's spouse's Social Security benefits by two-thirds of the retiree's government pension. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., has introduced a bill in the past to reduce that penalty.
  • Closing a loophole in the federal pay raise law. President Clinton has cited a loophole in the 1990 Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act every year to lower federal employees' pay raises from what the law's formula calls for. Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., tried to close the loophole last year, but the provision he pushed failed.

The year is young and Congress is gearing up to deal with legislation after the impeachment process is completed. Stay tuned to Pay and Benefits Watch to see which bills that matter to civil servants' wallets actually make their way through the legislative process.

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