Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., cosponsored legislation to update the benefits received by the families of federal workers who die on the job.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., cosponsored legislation to update the benefits received by the families of federal workers who die on the job. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Senate panel advances measures to overhaul federal workers’ death benefits, agency customer service

The money families of federal workers who die while on the job receive in gratuity and funerary benefits has not been updated since 1997.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Wednesday voted to advance a pair of measures aimed at improving federal employees’ death benefits and agency customer service more broadly.

The Honoring Civil Servants Killed in the Line of Duty Act (S. 3029); sponsored by Sens. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., Bill Hagerty, R-Tenn., Alex Padilla, D-Calif., and Josh Hawley, R-Mo.; would increase the amount of money the family of a federal worker who died of injuries sustained while on the job for the first time since 1997. Death gratuity payments would increase from the current $10,000 to $100,000, while the amount the federal government covers for funeral expenses would increase from $800 to $8,800.

Companion legislation was introduced in the House earlier this month but has not been acted upon.

“In 2012, the Office of Personnel Management highlighted the significant disparities across government in the administration of payment of how families are compensated when someone dies in the line of duty,” Sinema said at the committee meeting. “We’re now one step closer to righting that wrong . . . During a time of profound loss, family members should be focused on coming together and processing their loss, not worrying about bills.”

Before advancing the bill to the Senate floor for consideration, the committee accepted an amendment from Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., to increase reporting requirements associated with the administration of the newly updated death benefits to the comptroller general. Paul ultimately voted “present” on the measure.

The committee also voted 10-1 to advance legislation aimed at improving public-facing federal agencies’ customer service. The Improving Government Services Act (S. 2866), introduced by Committee Chairman Gary Peters, D-Mich., and Sens. James Lankford, R-Okla., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, would require agencies that provide services to members of the public to develop annual customer service action plans that outline strategies to adopt “human-centered” practices that reduce administrative burdens as well as practices already employed in the private sector like online services and call-back functions at call centers.

Despite the bipartisan push to advance the legislation, it was briefly held up as Paul argued that the measure was a covert effort to codify Biden administration initiatives associated with improving diversity and fighting climate change.

“This bill takes an executive order, which sounds good on the face of it—wanting to improve customer service, who could be against that?—and makes it permanent law,” Paul said Wednesday. “The problem is, when you look at the details of what the administration is currently doing, you see that it’s actually part of implementing the woke Biden DEI and climate policies without statutory authority.”

Paul’s assertion is tenuous, at best, however. Though the aforementioned 2021 executive order, Transforming Federal Customer Experience and Service Delivery to Rebuild Trust in Government, mentions both “equity” and “tackling the climate crisis,” it does so simply as part of a list of challenges federal agencies face. None of the order’s—or the bill’s—provisions directly address either issue.

“As the United States faces critical challenges, including recovering from a global pandemic, promoting prosperity and economic growth, advancing equity and tackling the climate crisis, the needs of the people of the United States, informed by, in particular, an understanding of how they experience government, should drive priorities for service delivery improvements,” the order states. “In recent years, the annual paperwork burden imposed by executive departments and agencies on the public has been in excess of 9 billion hours. That number is too high.”

The committee rejected multiple amendments offered by Paul, including sunsetting the bill’s provisions after two years, blocking agencies from using new appropriations to implement their customer service strategies, and requiring agencies to fire “five senior employees” if they do not meet the goals laid out in their annual action plans and redirecting their salaries to frontline customer service workers. Paul was the sole vote in opposition to the bill.

Both measures now head to the Senate floor for consideration.

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