The election of Joe Biden has produced a reaction among many federal employees and their organizations that can best be described as the title of an old TV show: Happy Days, or maybe Good Times.
However, the title of a more recent show may be more appropriate: Curb Your Enthusiasm.
The reason goes back to statements Biden made during the campaign in response to questions from employee organizations, in which he showed he is virtually in lockstep on their views on a host of federal benefits issues.
For example, he said in identical responses to two questionnaires that “The federal government should lead by example and provide high quality benefits, instead of pushing anti-worker budget adjustments designed to shift the burden of health care and retirement costs onto employees.”
Specifically, he said there and elsewhere that he opposes policies the Trump administration proposed including to require employees to pay more toward retirement; limit inflation adjustments on retirement benefits; or lower benefits in ways such as changing to a high-five salary base for calculating benefits of new retirees.
He also said that he favors improving some existing benefits including: repealing the higher contributions already required of some FERS employees; switching to a more generous inflation index for increasing retirement benefits; and eliminating the windfall elimination provision and the government pension offset, both of which are of interest only to CSRS retirees and the small percentage of current employees under CSRS.
The latter category, however, would require changing the law—which as every successive administration learns, is much more difficult than issuing executive orders or regulations.
On the House side, Democrats remain in the majority, meaning they continue to control what gets examined in committees and what gets brought to votes, although that majority has been thinned to only a few seats. Even with a larger majority these last two years they have done little than introduce bills reflecting those above priorities.
On the Senate side, much depends on the outcome of the runoff elections for the two Georgia seats. The Democratic candidates need to win both races to produce a 50-50 tie and gain control of that chamber, since incoming Vice President Kamala Harris would be the tiebreaker.
Less than that and control of the Senate agenda remains in the hands of Republicans who—while not taking the lead on proposals to cut federal benefits have also shown no inclination to provide improvements. Also remember that even if Democrats attain a majority of effectively 51-50, getting substantial legislation through the Senate commonly requires 60 votes, not 51.
Then there’s the new administration itself, which is facing a list of important national challenges that need not be listed here. There’s only so much time, energy and congressional voting capacity to go around, and those issues will consume a great deal of each.
History at Work
During the Obama administration—which is as good a precedent for the upcoming administration as one could imagine, given the commonality of senior leaders between the two—none of those improvements were enacted, including during the first two years when Democrats controlled both the House and Senate.
And the increases in required contributions toward retirement also were enacted under Obama, although to be fair that was largely forced on him by Republicans—who captured the House in the 2010 elections—at a time when both parties were more focused on annual deficits. Remember the Tea Party?
These days the purse strings are notably looser—arguably with good reason, given the need to shore up the pandemic-riddled national economy—but it’s questionable how much of its political capital the new administration will be willing to spend on improving benefits for federal employees and retirees in this environment.
That’s not to say benefit improvements can’t be enacted. They can, but only with patience, persistence and hard work every day, One Day at a Time.