Federal pay and benefits issues are not coming up as much for the Democratic presidential candidates as they are for Republicans. Last night’s Democratic debate was no exception, though there was some discussion of health care and education benefits for veterans. The Democratic candidates also touched on an issue that affects federal employees as well as other Americans: paid family leave. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and frontrunner Hillary Clinton both said they would like to create a federal mandate for paid family leave.
This would build on policies the Obama administration is already extending to the federal workforce. Obama last winter ordered federal agencies to advance employees up to six weeks of paid sick leave to care for a new child or ill family member. He also asked lawmakers to grant an additional six weeks of paid leave for the birth or adoption of a child. Lawmakers heeded his call by introducing legislation, but Congress has yet to pass the measures.
Meanwhile, the Navy is taking matters into its own hands. The service this summer tripled paid maternity leave for sailors and Marines to 18 weeks, and now officials are considering expanding paternity leave as well, the Associated Press reports. Currently married fathers in the Navy receive 10 days of leave to help care for a new child. But Navy leaders asked new fathers during a meeting at Pearl Harbor pier the ideal amount of leave and their response was 30 days, AP reported. The officials plan to bring this recommendation to Washington for consideration, according to the report.
As movement continues on family leave, other federal benefits remain at risk in the current political climate. The continuing resolution funding government runs out on Dec. 11, and President Obama has said he will not sign another stopgap spending measure, nor will he sign a measure that continues sequestration. But -- as we reported late last week – any deal to raise spending above the caps in the 2011 Budget Control Act is going to require offsets so that it doesn’t add to the deficit, and some of those offsets could take the form of cuts to federal benefits.
Retirement benefits are particularly vulnerable. The 2013 deal between Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., to break sequester caps in fiscal 2014 and 2015 included a provision increasing the amount that new feds must contribute to their retirement. Lawmakers spared current feds from that effective pay cut, but they might not be able to do so this time around. Other proposed offsets to spending increases have included a change in the rate of return on the Thrift Savings Plan’s government securities (G) fund, and calculating pension benefits for those in the Federal Employees Retirement System based on an average of the highest five years of an employee’s salary, rather than the highest three.
Lawmakers could also be looking for cuts to offset the costs of highway funding, which is set to expire at the end of October. And they must raise the debt ceiling again in early November, which is another fight that could leave federal pay and benefits vulnerable.
Military pay and benefits are facing their own uncertainty. President Obama is weighing whether to veto the fiscal 2016 Defense authorization act, which includes a 1.3 percent pay raise for troops and military retirement reforms, among other provisions. The president has 10 days (excluding Sundays) to sign or reject bills passed by Congress, but technically he has not received the Defense bill yet. The countdown is expected to start once lawmakers return from recess next week.
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