Unions are anxious for details of spending freeze

Employee organizations applaud overall message in State of the Union address, but raise some concerns about proposals to keep budgets in check.

Federal employee groups responded favorably to President Obama's first official State of the Union speech, but expressed some apprehension over the president's plans for a selective discretionary spending freeze and a commission to reduce the deficit.

"For me, the State of the Union address highlighted the important role federal employees have in addressing the nation's problems and implementing plans and programs for its future," said Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, in a statement.

But she said she hoped the president's fiscal 2011 budget request will support public servants. "It is critical we do not make budget and political decisions that deter us from continuing to rebuild the decimated federal workforce," she said.

On Wednesday night, Obama elaborated on a previous announcement that he would propose freezing most discretionary, nonsecurity spending for three years starting in fiscal 2011. He also pledged to issue an executive order advancing a deficit reduction commission plan the Senate rejected.

"Like any cash-strapped family, we will work within a budget to invest in what we need and sacrifice what we don't," the president told Congress. "And if I have to enforce this discipline by veto, I will. We will continue to go through the budget, line by line, page by page, to eliminate programs that we can't afford and don't work."

Kelley said it was too early to judge how the freeze would affect federal employees. "Since it is a top-line freeze, some agencies might get more than last year while others get less," she said.

John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said his union would continue to press congressional appropriators to ensure federal agencies receive adequate funding, and would wait to see how the proposed budget would affect staffing. He noted that while the freeze would affect overall discretionary spending, it would not place a cap on the number of federal employees.

"I never like these freezes, but as far as freezes go, this seems like a freeze-lite," Gage said. "I feel that … the federal worker friends in the House, including Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi, are going to look with a jaundiced eye to this freeze, especially if there are indications that key agencies, which have been starved over these years, are not able to perform their key missions."

Gage added that he hoped efforts to bring work performed by contractors back in-house and to boost efficiency would allow agencies to rein in their budgets while still hiring more federal employees.

"The devil is in the details," said Matt Biggs, legislative director for the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers. "We're anxiously awaiting the budget, especially for NASA."

The deficit reduction commission was another source for concern, though one union official noted he would rather see the panel established by executive order than by law.

Daniel Adcock, legislative director for the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, said he had been worried about the commission targeting federal retirement and health benefits. That is less likely with an executive order, he said. Unlike the legislation the Senate blocked earlier this week, Obama's directive would not compel Congress to vote on the panel's deficit-cutting proposals without amendments.

"At this point, [the executive order] wouldn't necessarily result in this automatic fast-track procedure that we're concerned about," Adcock said.