Editor's note: Retirement Planning columnist Tammy Flanagan will return next week.
Legislative priorities for helping the federal government's crop of retirees and soon-to-be retirees haven't changed substantially in a long time. At the top of the list is preserving existing entitlements: government health care and pensions, to be exact.
But for the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, the biggest lobbying group for federal retiree issues, a Democratic Congress will mean a change in strategy, and possibly in chances for success.
Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., who has a good chance of winning the House majority leader slot, released a statement Wednesday evening predicting that "retired civilian federal employees will find a more friendly environment in a Democratic House next year." He also pledged to work to ensure "federal retirees have a fair retirement."
"We've never had somebody who is as good a friend that far up in the leadership before," said Dan Adcock, assistant director of legislation at NARFE. "So having someone like [Hoyer] will be invaluable to the entire federal community."
Hoyer's advocacy could play an especially important role as Congress struggles to cut a huge deficit.
"As we edge closer to the time the baby boomers are going to retire, there is a lot of heat being brought to bear on policymakers on what they're going to do about Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid," Adcock said. "And while federal retirement doesn't run into the same demographic problems … if the past is prologue, we know there will be calls to make reductions in our program, too."
In the 1980s and 1990s, federal retirees' annual cost-of-living adjustments were canceled or delayed multiple times to reduce the deficit.
"Regardless of who is controlling the Congress, they are faced with a mounting budget deficit and the same problems of Social Security and Medicare," Adcock said. "The conditions remain the same."
While NARFE and other advocates still will have to play defense, there are some offensive moves they may make, too.
First on that list is protection against the addition of consumer-directed health insurance plans to the Federal Employees Health Benefits program. These plans, which to date are still very unpopular in the FEHBP, have lower premiums but higher deductibles. As a result, they attract younger, healthier participants. NARFE thinks the plans, if they gain popularity, will siphon off the very employees keeping rates lower for retirees, who tend to have higher health care costs.
Consumer-directed plans are "strongly supported by the administration and the administration's allies in Congress," Adcock said. "On this issue, [Democrats] don't necessarily vote in a bloc, but they tend to have concerns…that are similar to [our] concerns."
Finally, there are the bills that have consistently been on federal retirees' wish lists for years: windfall elimination and premium conversion. Windfall elimination would roll back a 1983 law that reduces Social Security benefits for retirees who also receive a government annuity. Premium conversion would allow federal retirees to pay their FEHBP costs with pre-tax dollars, like current employees do. NARFE estimates it would save retirees an average of $400 a year.
Both bills fall under the House Ways and Means Committee, and current chairman Bill Thomas, R-Calif., has not been receptive to either. Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., who is likely to take over as chairman, has co-sponsored both bills in the past. They would be costly, though. Rangel's receptiveness would give NARFE and federal retirees hope, but it may not be enough.