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Key developments in the world of federal employee benefits: health, pay, and much more.

Silent Treatment

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Congress is in recess and convention season begins in a few days. That means federal pay and benefits issues are receiving scant attention in Washington. It remains to be seen whether President Bush's nomination of Michael Hager to lead the Office of Personnel Management will move forward when Congress returns, or whether Hager will ease into the position on an acting basis. What is clear, however, is that a window is closing for a national debate about the size and administration of government. Presumptive Republican and Democratic presidential nominees John McCain and Barack Obama may have different visions for the federal workforce's future, but they aren't talking about them.

James Fallows writes in the September issue of The Atlantic that during the 47 primary debates this year, the moderators asked just seven questions about governance -- and no questions about specific government agencies and departments. Fallows isn't alone in his frustration at the lack of attention pundits and candidates pay to the issues of governance. Two public service heavyweights, Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, and Paul Light of New York University's Robert F. Wagner Graduate School, have called on the candidates to flesh out their government management agendas, noting that Obama and McCain have discussed government service less than their predecessors.

Obama won the endorsements of federal employee unions not on the strength of any particular proposals to address federal workforce challenges, but because of his consistent support for broad labor rights, and labor priorities like the 2007 Employee Free Choice Act. The Illinois senator backed legislation that would have prevented the Federal Aviation Administration from enforcing its proposed labor contract during deadlocked negotiations, and he has voted for federal employee pay raises. But those matters have been subordinate to national issues like the Iraq war and the struggling economy.

In the Senate, McCain's federal management priorities traditionally have focused on the Defense Department, Bureau of Indian Affairs and ethics issues. He's co-sponsored legislation to reform Defense acquisition processes and to designate military acquisition posts as mission-critical positions. The Arizona Republican introduced a range of amendments to the fiscal 2008 Defense appropriations bill, including measures that would require a study of service members' use of tuition benefits, an amendment that would require a report on pre-deployment physicals, and extending benefits for veterans suffering from service-related medical conditions. McCain also has proposed expanding the 1992 Morris K. Udall Scholarship and Excellence in National Environmental and Native American Public Policy Act to fund training in tribal leadership and management issues for Native Americans.

But all of these actions are part of the candidates' careers as legislators. If they aren't going to address federal pay and benefits on the campaign trail, then Hager's confirmation hearings could open the discussion in Washington. But even that seems unlikely.

There's a general agreement among observers that the next administration will face significant governing challenges and will need a new generation of talented employees to meet them. Then-OPM Director Linda Springer said in May that whoever the next president is, his first address should be about the honor and necessity of government service. It will be much easier for the government to sell itself as an employer of choice if the president takes an active role in a national conversation about public service. Absent that kind of discussion, an effort to reform government will make it harder for agencies to attract young people to public service.

Arguments over big government versus little government might not get to the heart of many federal workforce issues, but no conversation at all about how to sustain the biggest group of employees in the country is hardly the answer.

 
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