Senate Overseers to Consider Bill Raising Maximum Buyout Payment By $15K

Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., introduced the bill. Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., introduced the bill. Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

Lawmakers will mark up a bill this week that promises to raise the maximum buyout payment officials can offer federal employees by $15,000, as agencies generate plans to downsize their workforces in response to directives from the Trump administration.

The legislation, introduced last Thursday by Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., would raise the government’s maximum Voluntary Separation Incentive Payment from $25,000 to $40,000. Congress set the VSIP limit at $25,000 in 1993, and it has not changed since.

The Defense Department piloted a similar buyout increase for its civilian employees in fiscal 2017, but the new bill would extend the raise to civilian and military employees across government. The actual payment will be tied to the Consumer Price Index and change annually to adjust for inflation.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee is scheduled to mark up the legislation on Wednesday.

The $15,000 bump in VSIPs could make leaving government more appealing to employees as agencies look for ways to decrease the size of their workforces. Agencies were required to submit reorganization plans to the Office of Management and Budget by Sept. 30, and though leaders have said the plans would focus more on increasing efficiency than reducing the workforce, tight budgets may make some cuts inevitable.

The Environmental Protection Agency has already contacted 1,200 employees with early retirement and buyout offers. The Interior Department and other agencies have also indicated plans to move forward with similar measures.

The White House asked Congress for an identical $15,000 raise in agencies’ buyout limits earlier this year ahead of the National Defense Authorization Act. The original proposal wasn’t included in either the Senate or the House version of the NDAA, but the new bill would provide the same incentives for workforce reductions as the Trump administration’s plan.

While he welcomes any opportunity for federal employees to retire “with a few extra dollars in their pockets,” Steve Lenkart, executive director of the National Federation of Federal Employees, said he worries that the legislation risks helping to create a vacuum in agency leadership as top employees leave their posts ahead of schedule.

“At a time when most agencies are trying to fill critical vacancies, the increase in buyout payments may exacerbate the worker deficit especially in the upper ranks, which can lead to brain drain and a loss of institutional knowledge,” Lenkart told Government Executive. “This is exactly what some in Congress are trying to do. A better way is to plan strategically and execute a plan over a period of time defined in years, not months. As we’ve seen time and time again, Congress is no expert on running government.”

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