Language to ease rehiring of retirees makes it into Defense authorization

Lawmakers withdrew several federal workforce reforms from the Senate's 2010 Defense Authorization bill on Thursday in the face of an angry filibuster from Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., but a provision to make it easier to rehire annuitants survived in the budget legislation.

The Senate approved an amendment from Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, to S. 1390, which would allow agency heads to waive the requirement for retirees who are rehired part time to take a cut in their annuity checks. The authorization bill passed 87-7 late Thursday.

Under current Office of Personnel Management regulations, federal retirees can return to work for government part time, but in most cases their annuities are reduced by the amount they earn on the job, unless they receive a waiver from OPM. Agencies say this makes it harder to bring back experienced staff, especially if they're needed on short notice.

The retiree language originally was part of a larger amendment from Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, which included other federal personnel reforms, which management and labor groups supported.

But in an unusual move, Coburn filibustered the amendment for an hour and a half, saying its price tag was too steep in a time of recession and high unemployment. After Akaka withdrew his amendment, Collins offered the chapter dealing with rehiring federal retirees as a separate amendment, which was approved by voice vote.

The bill now will go to a conference committee, where its fate is uncertain. The House version of the Defense authorization, which was passed in late June, does not include the language in Collins' amendment. Despite broad bipartisan support in the Senate, the American Federation of Government Employees and other federal labor unions have spoken out against changing the policy on rehiring annuitants, saying it would put current employees at a disadvantage and circumvent fair hiring practices. By contrast, advocates say the legislation would make it easier to hire talented workers quickly to deal with immediate challenges, such as administering billions of dollars in stimulus funding.

In response to union concerns, the legislation includes several limitations on how long rehired annuitants could work for the government, such as a cap of 1,040 hours in a 12-month period. Also, the number of rehired retirees could not exceed 2.5 percent of an agency's workforce.

The good news for budget hawks: The retiree legislation would not generate substantial personnel costs, according to a Congressional Budget Office study. CBO said the bill primarily would ease the "administrative burden" of obtaining waivers from OPM, but it probably wouldn't increase the number of retirees in the federal workforce.

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