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Pay and Benefits Watch: Millionaires and buyouts

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Who wants to be a millionaire? Would you settle for $25,000?

While John Carpenter, an IRS collection agent from Connecticut, is counting up the $1,000,000 he won on ABC's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" last month, a select number of other federal employees could be offered buyouts worth up to $25,000 without answering any trivia questions.

Regis Philbin may be more generous than Congress, but lawmakers this year did agree to make it a bit easier on federal employees facing continued downsizing by offering several agencies buyout authority. Other agencies already have such authority.

The Veterans Millennium Health Care and Benefits Act, signed by President Clinton on Tuesday, gave the Veterans Affairs Department buyout authority for a limited number of positions. VA can offer buyouts of up to $25,000 to as many as 4,400 employees in the Veterans Health Administration, 240 workers in the Veterans Benefits Administration, 45 employees in VA staff offices and 15 workers in the National Cemetery Administration.

VA's buyout authority expires on Dec. 31, 2000.

The Agency for International Development also received buyout authority until Dec. 31, 2000 in the omnibus appropriations bill passed by Congress in late November (H.R. 3194).

Employees of the Bureau of Indian Affairs' Central Office West divisions who voluntarily resign or retire before Dec. 31, 1999 are also eligible for buyouts under H.R. 3194. And the bill extended buyout authority for the Railroad Retirement Board until March 31, 2000.

The fiscal 2000 Treasury-Postal appropriations bill included buyout authority for the Office of the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration until Jan. 1, 2003, and for the Chicago Financial Center of Treasury's Financial Management Service until Jan. 31, 2000.

The same bill gives the General Services Administration the authority to offer buyouts to employees of warehouses and other parts of the Federal Supply Service that GSA is considering closing down until April 30, 2001.

Congress this year also extended several other agencies' buyout authority. The Defense Department can now offer buyouts until Sept. 30, 2003 under the fiscal 2000 Defense authorization bill. The same bill extended the Energy Department's buyout authority until Jan. 1, 2003.

Other agencies that have buyout authority from previous sessions of Congress include the Agriculture Department (only up to $10,000), the IRS, NASA, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Architect of the Capitol, the Government Printing Office, and the Bonneville Power Administration.

An agency has to offer an employee or group of employees a buyout before they can sign up. An employee can't just call and request a buyout.

It's also a bit tricky to figure out which agencies in addition to the ones listed above have buyout authority. The Office of Personnel Management, which handles early retirement regulations, does not deal directly with buyouts. Instead, the Office of Management and Budget approves agencies' buyout plans. But OMB maintains no central record of buyout authorities, a spokesman said. When asked for a list of agencies with buyout authorities, OMB faxed an excerpt from a recent Federal Diary column by Mike Causey of The Washington Post.

OPM, in 1996, did publish an employees' guide to buyouts, which is available on the OPM Web site. Agencies' buyout rules vary because different pieces of legislation creating the buyout authorities varies, but the guide offers a good introduction to the basics of buyouts.

For federal employees whose agencies are not offering buyout authority, "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" will be returning to ABC next year. Until then you can watch a clip of the IRS' John Carpenter winning $1 million on ABC's Web site.

Brian Friel is founder of One Nation Analytics, an independent research, analytics and consulting firm for the federal market.

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