Federal Employee Advocates Increasingly Frustrated by Cycle of Stopgap Spending Bills

Andrew Harnik/AP

On Monday night, shortly after Congress approved a bill to fund the government until Feb. 8, a slew of unions and other groups representing federal employees issued statements in quick succession, all thanking Congress for reopening agencies—and providing back pay for furloughed feds—but demanding lawmakers come to an agreement on a long-term spending deal.

“Lawmakers now have 17 days to pass a budget that will fund federal agencies through the rest of the fiscal year,” said American Federation of Government Employees National President J. David Cox. “I urge Congress and the administration to come to the table, resolve their differences, and pass a long-term budget so that federal employees can continue to do their jobs in service to our country.”

Tony Reardon, national president of the National Treasury Employees Union, issued a similar statement. “A government shutdown, however brief, is a stressful and chaotic time for federal employees, and they are relieved that their agencies appear to be nearing the ability to reopen with normal operations,” he said. “We urge Congress and the administration to use the next 17 days to provide relief from sequestration and adequate agency funding for the remainder of the fiscal year and end the shutdown threat once and for all.”

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But just a few days later, lawmakers are already floating the idea of considering another continuing resolution ahead of the next funding deadline. And with much of the discussion on Capitol Hill likely being devoted to immigration issues over the next two weeks, federal employee groups say their members fear they could find themselves furloughed again in less than a month.

“It’s frustrating,” said Jessica Klement, legislative director of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association. “Obviously I wasn’t in the room with [Senate Minority Leader] Chuck Schumer and [Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell, so I have no idea how that conversation went, but there’s widespread skepticism that they just can’t come to an agreement on spending priorities, and that’s a heavy lift in two and a half weeks.”

Cox lambasted lawmakers’ resignation to continually funding the government in three- and four-week increments.

“The inability of Congress to pass a long-term funding bill, let alone a full fiscal year budget, is inexcusable,” he said. “Americans have funded the government services that they expect and deserve. Going from CR to CR is disruptive to the productivity of the people’s government and a great disservice to our country.”

Klement said the ever-present threat of being furloughed that comes with monthly CR debates takes a toll on feds and their families.

“It’s incredibly nerve-wracking and anxiety ridden,” she said. “With a CR, you can’t do long term planning in terms of travel or training, and the agency can’t move forward with its work load without knowing its budget. And being constantly under threat of a government shutdown, it impacts federal employees both personally in terms of their financial security, and professionally because they can’t operate efficiently.”

If and when lawmakers reach an agreement on a long-term funding deal, federal employees still may not have much reason to rejoice. Congress must increase spending caps in accordance with the 2011 Budget Control Act, and House conservatives traditionally have sought to offset any increases to domestic spending.

“What always makes us nervous is the offsets for raising the spending caps,” Klement said. “They took from feds in 2014 in the two-year budget deal, but then they didn’t in the two-year deal they did in November 2015 . . . Any time there are calls for spending offsets, the federal community should be nervous.”

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