The upcoming change to Democratic control of the House as a result of Tuesday’s elections could have a substantial impact on policies for federal employees and retirees, lessening the chances of erosion in the value of their benefits while shifting scrutiny away from them and onto political appointees instead.
Democrats traditionally have resisted Republican proposals to decrease the value of retirement and health insurance benefits, for example, while advocating larger annual raises. Even during Republican control of both chambers of Congress in recent years—the GOP will remain in charge of the Senate with a slightly increased majority next year—they were largely successful in protecting benefits, although raises have been held to the 1-2 percent range. As the first stop for most legislation on Capitol Hill, the House is unlikely to advance any further proposals to erode the value of benefits.
A change in priorities regarding personnel policies also is expected. Republicans have used their leadership of the key House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to press for limits on federal unions, to focus on the conduct and performance of career federal employees, and to push proposals to strengthen management’s hand in disciplining them. Some of those proposals have made little progress, although limits on employee appeal rights for VA employees did pass into law in 2017 in the wake of a series of scandals there. Those were seen as a potential precedent for government-wide changes that are now less likely to occur.
In a statement, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., who is in line to take over that committee, said he will instead “shine a light on waste, fraud, and abuse in the Trump administration. I want to probe senior administration officials across the government who have abused their positions of power and wasted taxpayer money, as well as President Trump’s decisions to act in his own financial self-interest rather than the best interests of the American people.”
Cummings and other Democrats also have opposed the administration’s executive orders on disciplinary policies and union rights, and have generally opposed its agency reorganization plans. With control of the House, they could move to block such actions through legislation, although to be enacted into law, consent of the Senate still would be needed and the White House still would have the power of veto, which Congress likely could not override.
In addition to veto power, the White House also still has executive powers to carry out policy changes affecting the federal workforce. For example, while key parts of the executive orders have been blocked by a court—a decision that is on appeal—others remain in place. The administration also has issued a series of policy directives to short-cut hiring processes for high-demand occupations, and has announced plans to create separate pay systems in several, starting with economists early next year.
Also, the administration expects to carry out many of its agency reorganization plans without approval of Congress. The acting OPM director recently suggested, for example, that some of that agency’s responsibilities could be shifted to GSA simply through an interagency agreement as part of its plan to break off OPM’s operating divisions and turn it into a policy office of the White House.
However, changes to basic federal employee rights and benefits that are set by law could not be made without action by Congress, which is now less likely than it has been during the past two years.