fedweek.com | talk of buyout amount increase stirs life in senate

Congress is back in session following a week-long recess but it expects to work for only three more weeks before recessing again until after Labor Day, leaving relatively little time for decisions before then on key issues of federal employee pay and benefits.

On returning in September, Congress then has scheduled less than five full working weeks before another planned recess until after the November elections, meaning that many of those decisions could be held over until near year’s end.

The House so far has not scheduled a vote on a budget plan approved by its Budget Committee that would assign spending amounts for appropriations bills for fiscal 2019 and meanwhile require savings in accounts that pay federal employee salaries and retirement benefits. That measure would leave specifics up to other committees but suggests changes including increasing employee contributions toward retirement benefits and other cuts that have been proposed repeatedly, including in the White House’s budget plan.

Without approval by the full House—and also the Senate–those recommendations would have no impact beyond being a policy statement. But it is now virtually certain that the Senate won’t take up a counterpart, likely leaving the benefit proposals stalled. The Senate’s counterpart committee recently assigned amounts for fiscal 2019 appropriations bills based on an earlier budget agreement.

One of those bills, covering general government matters, has cleared the Appropriations committees of both chambers but no further steps have been scheduled. A main difference between the two is that the House version effectively endorses paying no federal employee raise in January while the Senate version would provide a 1.9 percent raise. Neither contains the administration’s proposed $1 billion fund—proposed as a tradeoff for a freeze—to reward top performers and pay incentives in high-demand jobs.

There is a deadline on the horizon, however, since current agency spending authority expires with the 2018 fiscal year on September 30. Already there have been threats of a partial government shutdown over the sorts of policy disputes that triggered the short shutdowns earlier this year. A more common outcome in such situations is to temporarily extend current funding; the House has already packaged three of the dozen regular spending bills into one measure as a possible vehicle for such an extension. The general government bill similarly likely will be paired with the one covering Interior and environmental agencies. Such pairing generally is done only with bills expected to pass without controversy.

Meanwhile, preliminary work has started on resolving differences in the House- and Senate-passed versions of the annual defense authorization bill. One major difference for federal employees is that the Senate version, but not the House version, would boost the maximum buyout payment from $25,000 to $40,000 government-wide, matching the higher number already in effect at DoD. The bills also contain various special hiring and benefits provisions, some of them applying only to DoD and others applying government-wide. That measure is considered a must-pass although final action commonly doesn’t occur until late autumn.