Lawmaker tries to reassure beleaguered feds

By Kellie Lunney

August 5, 2011

A Democratic senator on Friday tried to reassure federal employees worried about the effect of the debt ceiling deal on their pay and benefits, while at the same time acknowledging the super committee created to study deficit reduction could come up with proposals that hurt feds.

"We will be watching that very closely," said Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., referring to the recommendations the joint congressional committee crafts in the fall to reduce spending -- one of the provisions of the debt ceiling deal. Cardin spoke Friday to federal employees gathered in the library of the Census Bureau in Suitland, Md., just outside Washington.

In response to a question about various proposals calling for freezing federal pay beyond 2012, Cardin said any decisions on additional federal pay freezes likely would be made in 2013 and could be the result of a recommendation from the super committee, a joint congressional committee of 12 lawmakers. Cardin, who said he also spoke for his fellow congressional Maryland Democrats, pledged to fight for federal employees and to work to protect them from further pay and benefits pain.

"We're going to stand up and defend what you do every day," Cardin told the packed room, which erupted in applause several times. "We are going to make sure that is in the debate going forward." Many federal employees live and work in Maryland.

Any provisions to modify the pay or benefits of federal employees likely would come from the joint congressional committee's work. Most observers agree that government employees will have to sacrifice beyond the two-year pay freeze, either in the form of increased pension contributions, a further pay freeze, a hiring freeze, or some other cut to salaries and benefits. On Tuesday, Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., introduced legislation that would extend the current two-year pay freeze by an additional three years and restrict performance and recruitment bonuses for that same period. The bill also calls for a 15 percent cut to the size of the federal employee and contractor workforces through attrition, and a 75 percent reduction in the government's travel budget.

The 2011 Budget Control Act, signed into law earlier this week, would save at least $2.1 trillion between 2012 and 2021 through a series of caps on discretionary spending and a comprehensive deficit reduction package devised by the super committee. Automatic, across-the-board spending cuts totaling as much as $1.2 trillion beginning in 2013 would be triggered if the committee cannot agree on a deficit reduction plan. Those cuts would be spread evenly from fiscal 2013 through 2021, and would come from defense and nondefense spending. "I'm not going to sell any of you on the budget agreement being a great agreement," Cardin said, as he explained the elements of the deficit reduction package and how it could affect federal employees and retirees.

He assured federal employees that since Congress had set aside money for the fiscal 2012 budget as a result of the recent deal, another showdown in the fall over appropriations was unlikely. Even so, lawmakers still have to decide where -- and how deep -- to make spending cuts across government. Agencies across-the-board will see their budgets shrink for the next decade as a result of the spending caps.

The Maryland Democrat also explained the automatic, across-the-board spending cuts -- known as sequestration -- that would be triggered if the super committee doesn't agree on a deficit reduction plan or Congress fails to approve it. Cardin said he was hopeful that the super committee would agree on recommendations to cut spending, but he also pointed out the benefits of sequestration to feds. Like Social Security, Medicaid and some low-income programs, federal pensions would be protected under sequestration, which is not guaranteed under a super committee roadmap.

"I hope the joint committee comes in with a balanced approach that looks at more than discretionary spending," Cardin said.

By Kellie Lunney

August 5, 2011