Federal workers know the drill when it comes to big budget questions. With Congress grappling with another fiscal crisis, federal employee unions are bracing for more efforts to wring savings from government salaries and benefits.
Several lawmakers in recent weeks have started floating the idea of extending the 2-year-old federal pay freeze that is due to expire at the end of this month and trimming spending on pensions and benefits to help bring the budget under control. Although those ideas have not gathered much traction so far, leaders of unions representing government workers are worried their members will be an easy target for new cutbacks and already are lobbying lawmakers.
“We are certainly taking it as a serious threat and trying to talk to people about it,” said Maureen Gilman, legislative and political director for the National Treasury Employees Union.
Over the past couple of years, as Washington has lurched from fiscal crisis to fiscal crisis, federal employees have seen their salaries and benefits targeted for budget savings. Already, employees have worked under a pay freeze in place since 2010. In February, lawmakers agreed to higher pension contributions from new federal employees to raise $15 billion to offset the cost of extending the payroll tax cut and expanded unemployment insurance.
“That’s where they turn repeatedly when they need money,” said J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees. “We’ve given $103 billion. That equates to $50,000 for every federal employee. That’s a chunk of change.”
Most recently, a proposal from Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, to avert the fiscal cliff included $300 billion in discretionary spending cuts that he said came from a deficit reduction plan put forward in 2010 by a presidential commission on deficit reduction. That proposal called for a federal pay freeze and a workforce reduction through attrition. Although Boehner’s plan was hazy on the details, House Republicans could offer up similar cuts now.
Separately, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., has offered his own deficit reduction proposal that includes cuts to the federal workforce. His plan would extend the pay freeze through 2015, reduce federal hiring, move new employees off the existing defined benefit pension plan and convert the federal health plan to a voucher system.
Corker’s proposal would get $397 billion from cuts to federal workforce spending.
“It’s one of those measures that people on both sides of the aisle have looked at, including Bowles-Simpson,” he said. “There’s a lot of bipartisan support for them.”
The ideas certainly have the support of budget hawks.