There’s a nickname for news reports so provocative that readers are compelled to give them a literal shout out. They’re called “Hey, Martha!” stories — as in, "Hey, Martha! Come read over my shoulder: You’re not going to believe this!"
Just such a doozy dominated The Washington Post's front page on March 23. It detailed how the government processes federal worker retirement forms: entirely by hand, almost exclusively on paper and always deep inside an old mine in rural western Pennsylvania.
As if that picture of bureaucratic inefficiency were not jaw-dropping enough, the story explained the sobering consequences: The process takes an average of 61 days. More than 23,000 cases are backlogged on a typical day. And, after spending more than $130 million since the late 1980s on three different modernization efforts that failed, there’s almost no chance the system will hook up to the computer era — let alone the Internet age — in the foreseeable future.
What that means is that more than 100,000 outgoing government employees annually — dozens of veteran congressional staffers and Capitol complex laborers among them — can expect to wait more than two months before their retirement is official and they start seeing their full benefits. (Usually, checks representing partial estimated payments show up sooner, but even those became seriously delayed during last fall’s partial government shutdown.)
In the current tight budget climate, and given that combating federal retiree hardships isn’t a politically important cause for many lawmakers, Congress will not be spending what it takes to automate or digitize the process — or to bring it out of the darkness.
But, just as it won’t seek credit for ending the cave age system, it doesn’t deserve credit for starting it, either.
People familiar with the Hill’s old earmarking culture may assume the paperwork mine came into being under the auspices of a couple of powerful lawmakers. The available circumstantial evidence suggests otherwise.
The decision to move several tons of personnel files out of Washington, initially just for storage, was made in 1958. Officials considered options in Richmond, Va., and Syracuse, N.Y., before deciding to lease some naturally climate-controlled caverns carved inside the hills 45 miles north of Pittsburgh. (The limestone quarried there was gobbled up by the city’s steel mills.)
At the time, there were two Pennsylvanians on House Appropriations — but both came from the coal-mining country on the opposite side of the state. And none of the state’s senators during the late 1950s were appropriators or in the leadership.
So it’s tough to believe that pork-barrel politicking gave birth to the Office of Personnel Management’s underground world.
It has now evolved into a network of eight caverns into which 600 scriveners descend every weekday, 220 feet below the surface, to scramble among more than 28,000 metal file cabinets in search of the records that must be reconciled before the processing of a retirement is complete.
The seemingly bizarre operation looks to have been sustained in a pretty ordinary way.
The lack of natural light and a cafeteria notwithstanding, the government jobs are coveted in the 1,200-population hamlet of Boyers and have helped give surrounding Butler County one of the lowest unemployment levels in the state. Which is why the area’s congressman, second-term GOP Rep. Mike Kelly, tells me he and local officials remain thrilled with the arrangement.
So is Iron Mountain Inc., the records management behemoth that owns the complex, dubbed "the Underground." (The firm — which employs another 2,000 people to maintain old photographs and movie footage for business customers elsewhere in the 145-acre labyrinth — spends some of its $2 million annual lobbying budget and uses some of its $100,000 in political giving to keep Congress from altering the OPM arrangement.)
For now, all signs point to the agency and the lawmakers agreeing that the paperwork miners will have to keep improving their efficiency with the tools they’ve got, because any expensive information technology overhaul is not in the cards. (In promising news, to be fair, after adding more clerks, the average time to process a new retirement claim has been more than halved since the end 0f 2011.)
The day after the Post story was published, OPM Director Katherine Archuleta promised she had not abandoned “IT modernization, including the development of a case management system.” But the detailed budget request she sent to Congress promises nothing more dramatic than a 25 percent increase over two years in the number of already-processed retirees capable of dealing with OPM online.
“We find the time it takes OPM to process employee’s retirement to be unacceptable and will be pushing them to make improvements,” Rep. Ander Crenshaw, the Florida Republican who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the agency, told me in a statement.
But, again, no mention of a money boost. Which is hardly surprising — not only because overall domestic spending for 2015 is going to essentially be frozen at the current level, but also because the agency’s discretionary budget has been flat-lined at about $240 million for the past several years.
(By comparison to other programs under the purview of Crenshaw’s panel, Financial Services and General Government, the OPM budget is two-thirds the size of what’s given to the National Archives or the White House drug czar, and just a hair more than what’s spent on the local courts in Washington, D.C., or the agency that regulates trading in commodity futures.)
Ensuring a government that’s technologically in the 21st century, or at least able to provide services as efficiently as most businesses, is in theory a bipartisan goal. But in this case the cause of modernization is going to remain — figuratively as well as literally — buried.