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Limiting the Pensions of Wealthy Ex-Presidents, Help With Retirement Decisions and More

A weekly roundup of pay and benefits news.

President Obama’s parting State of the Union address didn’t offer much by way of concrete proposals that would affect federal employees. The president did, however, call for broader political reforms that public servants might welcome. He appealed to Americans to work together and have “rational, constructive debates” on issues ranging from the size of government to the meaning of liberty. This is unlikely to stop Republican lawmakers from placing federal employees’ pay and benefits on the chopping block, but it might at least change the tone of the discussion.

Meanwhile, Congress is moving ahead on several reforms to both protect federal workers but also hold them more accountable for their job performance. A bill passed by the House early this week would afford federal interns the same safeguards as other employees against sexual harassment and discrimination. Currently, interns fall under a loophole where they are vulnerable to abuse in government offices. An Environmental Protection Agency employee, for instance, reportedly targeted women at the agency – including interns – frequently, and was able to retire before being dismissed. During a July hearing, lawmakers on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee said the EPA was too slow and not harsh enough in its attempts to punish the alleged predator.

The oversight panel also broadly wants to clear away obstacles to disciplining malfeasant feds. This week the committee passed a bill that would make it easier to suspend and fire employees in the Senior Executive Service. The bill (H.R. 4358) would make the federal government’s top career officials eligible for one- to 14-day suspensions, and expand the criteria that could be used to justify suspending and firing them. It also would require SES members who receive written notice of a pending removal from the civil service to take mandatory annual leave during which they would receive pay, but could not work. Those cleared of wrongdoing would see the leave restored.

Also on Tuesday, the Oversight and Government Reform Committee approved a bill that would extend the probationary period for Title V federal employees, and members of the SES, from one to two years. Most feds have a probationary period of one year, in which they are considered “at-will” employees, making it easier to fire them if they are not performing.

The panel was not able to agree on changes aimed at curbing the abuse of paid administrative leave for federal employees under investigation. A bill by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of the committee, would cap the amount of time an agency could place an employee on administrative leave for misconduct or performance at 14 days each year. There are currently no restrictions.

Chaffetz called the legislation a “common-sense” measure, but Democrats said they needed more information about what would happen after the 14 days were up. The committee agreed to vote on the bill at another time after holding more discussions.  

Lawmakers are also not going easy on former presidents. The full House on Monday passed a bill (H.R. 1777) that limits the pensions of ex-presidents to $200,000 a year, and also curbs their annual allowances for post-presidential expenditures such as office expenses to $200,000 minus whatever outside income they make in excess of $400,000 a year. The bill is kinder to spouses of former presidents, increasing their annual survivor benefits should the president pass away from $20,000 to $100,000.

Currently former presidents receive “a pension equal to the pay for the head of an executive department, funds for travel, office space, support staff, and mailing privileges,” according to a fact sheet on the bill. The General Services Administration projects spending of $3.2 million on former presidents this fiscal year, the fact sheet stated.

 “This bipartisan bill recognizes the reality that most former presidents are wealthy individuals not in need of subsidies from the American taxpayer,” stated Reps. Chaffetz and Elijah Cummings, D-Md., who cosponsored the bill. “The bill updates an arcane law and reduces unnecessary costs to taxpayers. It ends a needless government handout to former presidents making millions of dollars upon leaving office.”

For those who need to watch their money a little more carefully upon retirement and are in the military, the Military Officers Association of America is hosting a webinar that might be of interest. The Jan. 19 webinar from 2-3 p.m. will help service members who joined in or after 2006 decide whether to stay in the current retirement system or switch to the new program the Pentagon is offering. Register here for the webinar.

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