From shutdown prospects to anti-telework bills: 5 things to watch when Congress returns
Pending legislation could affect federal employees' work-life balance, civil service protections, TSP investment options and more.
The Senate returns from recess on Tuesday and the House the following week. Lawmakers will be racing the clock to tackle big issues, such as finalizing agency spending bills. Here are five areas to watch as Congress returns, that could have big implications for federal employees’ paychecks, benefits and job security.
1. Shutdown prospects. One of the top items on lawmakers’ agenda when they return will be funding the government for next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., have said they’ve agreed to work on a short-term continuing resolution to keep the lights on while negotiations on longer-term spending are completed. House Freedom Caucus members have threatened not to support the CR unless it meets a list of demands on conservative policy issues, but McCarthy plans to use the need to fund investigations of Hunter Biden as leverage to avoid a shutdown.
The Fiscal Responsibility Act, signed into law in June as part of a deal to avoid a debt default, has a provision intended to discourage a shutdown. Under the law, Congress has until Jan. 1, 2024 to pass all 12 annual appropriations bills or a process would be triggered that could result in cuts to all agency budgets of 1% below this year’s levels.
2. Anti-telework bills. The White House earlier in August called on agencies to “aggressively” reduce telework this fall, but Republicans aren’t taking any changes. The Stopping Home Office Work’s Unproductive Problems Act (H.R. 139 and S. 1565) would require agencies to “reinstate and apply the telework policies, practices and levels . . . in effect on December 31, 2019” within 30 days of the bill’s enactment. If agencies want to expand telework beyond 2019 levels, they would have to submit an Office of Personnel Management-certified plan to Congress first.
The House narrowly passed the bill–dubbed the SHOW UP Act–in February, but the Senate version has not made it out of committee. House lawmakers are also attacking telework through appropriations legislation, attaching a rider to their version of the Financial Services and General Government spending bill that would direct agencies to return their telework policies to pre-pandemic levels within 30 days of the bill’s enactment, similar to the SHOW UP Act.
The Senate version of the Financial Services appropriations bill does not ask agencies to scale back telework, but the report accompanying the bill requires several agencies covered under the bill–such as the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Trade Commission–to “evaluate how increased telework impacts recruitment, retention, and organizational performance” and report back to the panel within 180 days after enactment.
The House and Senate will eventually need to hammer out differences between their two versions before the bill becomes law.
Lawmakers are also making return-to-office policies a subject of their oversight efforts. Republican leaders on the House Oversight and Accountability Committee on Thursday sent a letter to White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients seeking more information on his August message promoting more in-person work. “The American people deserve to understand the Biden Administration’s post-pandemic telework policy and the thinking behind the Biden Administration’s rapidly evolving telework posture,” the letter stated.
3. The pay raise. President Biden has proposed a 5.2% average pay raise for civilian federal employees in 2024, and so far Congress has done nothing to override that figure, which would represent the largest raise for feds since the Carter administration granted them a 9.1% average increase in 1980.
The House and Senate draft versions of the fiscal 2024 Financial Services and General Government appropriations bill are silent on the pay hike, meaning lawmakers so far don’t plan to stand in the way of letting Biden’s plan take effect. The House’s version of the Defense Authorization Act also supports Biden’s proposed 5.2% raise for civilians, as well as military members.
Democratic lawmakers have pitched overriding Biden’s plan with an even bigger pay raise of 8.7% for 2024, introducing the Federal Adjustment of Income Rates Act in January. Such measures have become an annual effort that is rarely acted upon, and this year’s is no exception. Both the House version (H.R. 536), sponsored by Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., and the Senate bill (S. 124), from Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, are sitting at the committee level.
4. TSP limitations. Lawmakers have introduced legislative language that would place restrictions on investments made through federal employees’ 401(k)-style retirement savings plan. A provision in the House version of the fiscal 2024 Financial Services and General Government Appropriations bill, for instance, would prevent federal employees from investing in mutual funds through the Thrift Savings Plan’s mutual fund window that “make investment decisions based primarily on environmental, social, or governance criteria.”
The Senate’s version of the Financial Services spending bill did not have the same language; however, the Senate earlier in the summer considered a defense policy bill amendment intended to prevent TSP investments in Chinese companies. The amendment to the fiscal 2024 Defense Authorization Act by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., failed, but by a relatively small margin, receiving bipartisan support and 55 of 60 votes it would have needed to pass.
5. Schedule F (and efforts to stop it). Republican presidential hopefuls including former President Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have pledged to revive “Schedule F,” a Trump administration initiative to place potentially tens of thousands of career federal employees into a new job classification within the excepted service that would strip them of most of their civil service protections and make it easier to hire and fire them.
Biden quickly reversed Trump’s executive order creating the new job classification upon coming into office, before any federal employees were actually affected, but Democratic lawmakers would like to stop any future plans to resurrect Schedule F in their tracks. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., in February introduced the Saving the Civil Service Act, which would stop the president from creating new job classifications within the excepted service. Kaine later tried to attach the bill, which has a House companion, to the Defense Authorization Act. The language did not make it into the Senate-passed version of the policy bill, and prospects of the standalone measure being enacted are dim, with a Republican majority in the House.