Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md.

Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md. J. Scott Applewhite/AP file photo

Senator: I'll 'Stand in Front of the Bus' to Protect Federal Pay and Benefits

NIH town hall exposes fears over cutbacks to work travel and proposals to reduce compensation.

Federal employees at the National Institutes of Health on Thursday expressed concern over repeated proposals to reduce their compensation, as well as restrictions on their ability to travel and attend conferences for work, during a town hall with Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md.

Cardin, who represents a state with a large federal presence, was emphatic about his solidarity with government employees, especially those working at Bethesda-based NIH. “I can tell you that your federal delegation will do everything in our power, including standing in front of the bus, to make sure those negative things don’t happen, and try to get more positive provisions to help our federal workforce,” Cardin told the crowd gathered in a not-packed Masur Auditorium.

The “negative things” he referred to include lackluster annual cost-of-living increases – Cardin called President Obama’s 1 percent pay raise for feds in 2014 and 2015 “inadequate” – as well as efforts to require federal employees to pay more for their pensions, which newer employees already do. Cardin has introduced a bill that would give feds a 3.8 percent pay raise in 2016. He recently praised two NIH employees on the Senate floor as part of his ongoing effort to publicize the work feds do.

The Maryland Democrat said that the federal workforce is “underpaid” when you look at the skill levels of employees, and, in many cases, their life-saving missions. But he was playing to a friendly crowd, who mostly wanted him to convince his colleagues to give the chronically-underfunded agency more money -- and to stop demonizing feds.

“You should expect from Congress that there will be no more shutdowns, no more sequestration, no more continuing resolutions,” Cardin said to applause. “You deserve a budget, this country deserves a budget, and you shouldn’t take anything less than that.” Maryland’s other senator, Democrat Barbara Mikulski, has introduced a bill that would infuse NIH with more money over the next few years, inoculating it from sequestration. NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins has said that the decade-long budget crunch at the agency hindered the development of an Ebola vaccine, which would have helped during the 2014 outbreak of the disease in West Africa.

NIH employees, in particular, also are worried about the impact the Obama administration’s crackdown on agency travel is having on scientific collaboration and research. The Office of Management and Budget directed agencies in May 2012 to spend at least 30 percent less on travel in fiscal 2013 and maintain that level through 2016, largely in response to the scandal at the General Services Administration involving a lavish conference in Las Vegas.

A new Government Accountability Office report concluded the restrictions and extra oversight are costing agencies lots of money in time and personnel, as well as last-minute travel arrangements. An employee listening to Thursday’s town hall via webcast said that the “reaction to a few bad apples has resulted in multi-tiered oversight of travel,” which has “slowed the work to near paralysis in some quarters.”

Cardin called the travel and conference restrictions “ridiculous” and “counterproductive,” garnering more applause. “You don’t work in a bubble, you work by collaboration, that’s how creativity starts,” he said. “You have to be able to share, that’s absolutely part of innovation.” He acknowledged the abuses by some, and the responsibility to account for every taxpayer dollar, but said the response to the conference scandal went too far. “Don’t overreact to someone who has abused the system by preventing the appropriate type of collaboration that is critically important to the mission,” he said.

Cardin last held a town hall at NIH in February 2013, a month before sequestration started. The atmosphere of Thursday’s town hall was less tense and more optimistic than the event two years ago. “I think the overwhelming majority of members of Congress, including both sides of the aisle, want government to work,” he said, responding to an employee who said the demonization of the federal workforce is a de-motivator. Still, Cardin, added, there are some in Congress who don’t want government to work and “they are having some influence on the politics of Washington, no question.”