Federal pay and benefits could change with new Congress

In recent months, there's been a lot of talk about proposed hiring and pay freezes and mandatory furloughs in the federal government. But those ideas could become reality if Republicans on Tuesday win the necessary 39 seats to gain control of the House.

House Republicans unveiled their Pledge to America in September, promising to reduce the size of government and freeze hiring for all nonsecurity-related federal positions. Lawmakers in both chambers also have pushed several measures that would affect federal jobs and benefits. For example, Republicans have introduced legislation that would furlough all federal civilian workers for up to two weeks in 2011 and make those with outstanding tax debts ineligible for continued government employment. Bills in both chambers would cap the federal workforce through attrition or by allowing agencies to hire only one employee for every two employees who leave.

In addition, GOP lawmakers have used the YouCut program to push federal workforce reductions. The initiative, designed to control government spending, allows the public to vote online, or via text message each week on legislative proposals. The winning idea goes to the House floor.

Federal workers have friends in both parties, says Jessica Klement, government affairs director for the Federal Managers Association. While the group's priorities won't change based on leadership on Capitol Hill, election results could affect progress in achieving those goals.

"[Federal employees] have strong supporters on both sides of the aisle, but a quick tour of the YouCut website tells you the priorities of [Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio] and [Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va.]," said Klement. "If those are priorities of the leaders, they could become more than just something the American public votes on."

If Republicans gain control of the House, Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., will no longer be majority leader. Hoyer has been an advocate for federal workers' concerns, and union leaders have said a leadership change could affect the tone of the conversation about the government workforce or even invite attacks on federal employees.

"Democrats will keep the House, and I will continue to work with members across the aisle to address the issues of importance to federal employees, many of whom are my constituents," said Hoyer in a statement to Government Executive.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., would assume the chairmanship of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee if Republicans win the House on Tuesday. Issa's office in September released an outline of priorities for the committee under his leadership. The report, which focused on issues like stimulus spending, health care oversight, federal agency performance management and domestic terrorism, cited a growing federal workforce as a potential contributor to government waste, fraud and abuse. Issa spokesman Frederick Hill said the committee does not yet have a more specific agenda outside of those guidelines.

Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah would take over the subcommittee tasked with overseeing the federal workforce and U.S. Postal Service. Chaffetz angered many government employees and union leaders earlier this year when he introduced a bill to fire government workers who owe back taxes. He also has drawn criticism from the postal community for his opposition to the agency's five-day delivery plan and his proposed legislation granting the Postal Service 12 postal holidays every fiscal year to suspend mail delivery.

USPS spokeswoman Joanne Veto said leadership changes won't affect the Postal Service's legislative agenda. The agency has been pushing for flexibility to close post offices for economic reasons, determine the number of weekly mail delivery days and adjust requirements to prefund its retiree health benefits.

Union leaders have said they will continue to work with both Democrats and Republicans on issues in support of their members, but acknowledged it could be hard work. Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, expressed concern that a Republican takeover could lead to freezes in federal hiring and pay, as well outsourcing accompanied by cuts in government jobs.

"We're extremely concerned about a change in the House because many of these new congressional people coming in are obsessed with this rolling back government to some small government," said John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees. "I think we will be in really tough shape on appropriations and federal pay. I don't know if they're gung-ho enough to go after federal health care and retirement, but I wouldn't put it past them."

On the Senate side, there is less change expected for the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Committee Chairman Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and Ranking Member Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, have a positive working relationship, which Collins has pledged to continue regardless of Tuesday's outcome. The roster of the federal workforce subcommittee will change, however. Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, long active in federal employee issues is planning to retire, while appointed Sens. Ted Kaufman, D-Del., and Roland Burris, D-Ill., will not return.

According to committee spokeswoman Leslie Phillips, legislation extending benefits to the same-sex partners of federal employees is likely to be on next year's agenda, in addition to issues like homegrown terror, cybersecurity legislation, reform of the Federal Protective Service, and oversight of border security and emergency preparedness.

"Federal employees don't all paint with the same brush, and they don't all vote the same way," said Klement. "They don't hold homogenous views or vote solely for the Democratic ticket. You can't lump all 2 million together."

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