Time already is growing short for Congress and the White House to make decisions on key budget matters affecting federal employees before the start of the new fiscal year October 1, with concerns being raised of a deadlock of the sort that led to the partial government shutdown in October 2013.
Congress has only three working weeks planned before recessing through Labor Day and during that time much of its attention will focus on a bill to revise health care policy (not affecting the FEHB program). Chances are growing ever slimmer that legislators will produce a budget blueprint that addresses policy matters such as the White House’s proposed cuts to retirement benefits and its proposal to require the large majority of active employees to pay more toward their benefits.
The only definite positions taken so far regarding those proposals have been in opposition: about 100 House Democrats signed onto a letter to leadership urging that the proposals rejected, and nine Republicans–many of them representing federal employee-heavy districts–separately have done the same.
For employees and retirees, inaction to date could be considered a positive sign since current policies continue unless changed. However, if changes are to come they will have less time to prepare–for example, to retire (if eligible) before the effective date of proposals such as basing new annuities on the highest five consecutive salary years rather than three, and eliminating for future retirees a supplement for those who retire under FERS before age 62 that is paid until that age and Social Security benefits begin.
In the meantime, Congress has started moving the regular appropriations bills for the new fiscal year without a general outline in place. In past years the result commonly has been standoffs over unresolved policy matters that get merged with spending levels in those bills. That process repeatedly has brought the government to the brink of partial shutdowns. Typically the situation is resolved by bundling the bills together and passing them as one, often after one or more short-term extensions of prior spending levels–although in 2013 that didn’t happen until hundreds of thousands of federal employees had been on unpaid furloughs for two weeks.
Another complication is the need to raise the federal debt ceiling, which also commonly results in budgetary brinksmanship. There seems to be relatively little chance of action on that issue before the August recess either. The Treasury already is using certain financial maneuvers to allow the government to continue to operate as normal since the limit technically has been exceeded. Certain further maneuvers may be available but the department has warned that action to raise the limit will be needed by around the same time as the need to renew agency spending authority. The CBO has estimated that the absolute deadline will arrive in early to mid-October.