Jeff T.H. Pon, director of the Office of Personnel Management, and Margaret Weichert, a deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, discussed federal pay, retirement and civil service reform during a Public Service Recognition Week forum at the Partnership for Public Service in Washington last week and at a House hearing Wednesday. (Partnership for Public Service)
Even President Trump can have a decent thought now and then.
Take his President’s Management Agenda, which outlines ideas to improve the federal government. The chapters cover general themes that any administration could endorse, such as “Improving Customer Experience with Federal Services,” “Getting Payments Right” and “Sharing Quality Services.”
Decorated with color photos of happy citizens and dedicated federal workers, it conveys a “let’s do better” message with little hint of looming controversies. In what must have been a mistaken nod to bipartisanship, a picture of Jeh Johnson, who was Homeland Security secretary under President Barack Obama, was included in a montage of photos on the cover of the 50-page document. Someone has since corrected that, before, hopefully for their sake, the narcissistic Trump saw it.
That vision got little attention compared to the workforce provisions that dominated the session, largely because of critical comments from Democrats to two administration officials who defended the punitive proposals. The workforce section of the agenda is less than four pages and briefly mentions the freeze and retirement hit in one paragraph on Page 19.
But those plans drew sustained heat from Democrats, leaving most of the management agenda, including other workforce issues, largely ignored. For example, in his opening statement, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the government operations subcommittee, said “perhaps most importantly, the hiring process in government still takes too long and is overly complex.”
That’s an example of an issue that could draw broad support, from Republicans and Democrats, from labor and management. Yet, it received little attention because the administration set the agenda for discussion by previously pushing the pay freeze and retirement cuts. In doing so, the administration overshadowed its management agenda. Even issues of employee accountability and performance, the focus of Republican attention, could not overcome the priority the administration gives to making feds poorer.
“In the name of modernization,” the administration’s budget and legislative proposals “are nothing more than attacks on the federal workforce,” Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (Va.), the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, said in his opening statement. “OPM (Office of Personnel Management) has proposed: 1) the complete elimination of Federal Employees Retirement System Annuity Supplements; 2) assessing an annuitant’s average salary by averaging an employee’s basic pay over five-year consecutive pay period rather than over a three-year consecutive pay period; 3) increasing contributions to the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS) by 1 percent per year until the employee is contributing half of the cost; and, 4) a reduction or elimination of the retirement cost-of-living adjustments. And unlike previous changes to the federal employee retirement benefits where changes were applied prospectively, this Administration would like to apply these proposals to both current federal employees and retirees.”
Opening statements by Margaret Weichert, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, and OPM Director Jeff T.H. Pon did not specifically mention the retirement cuts Pon proposed in a letter to Congress two weeks ago. During the hearing, both discussed a proposed $1 billion Workforce Fund, which Pon described as “an alternative to an across-the-board pay increase, the Workforce Fund would allow agencies to better target pay incentives for recruitment and retention of top performing employees with critical skill sets.”
He has promoted a comprehensive, not piecemeal, approach to civil service reform. Pon violated that, however, by first seeking cuts to compensation, which would be included in any reform discussion.
A fund for selected bonuses rather than wage increases that allow base pay to grow is another cutting private-sector idea that would hurt federal employees and has been embraced by the administration.
“But government is not a business,” Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.), the ranking Democrat on the full committee, reminded the administration officials. “The government’s purpose is to promote the interests of the American people — not to make a profit.”
If $1 billion goes to the fund, Cummings demanded to know what would happen to the remainder of the $143.5 billion.
Weichert had no clear answer, but did say “the compensation system is overly rigid.” Pon has previously denounced a “peanut butter” approach to federal pay, meaning rigid actions like across-the-board pay increases. Yet a freeze clearly is more peanut butter than jelly.
Federal unions vigorously disagree that the current system is too rigid. Any meaningful discussion, however, of the pros and cons of issues affecting the workforce, IT modernization and data accountability initiatives, the agenda’s “three key drivers of modernizing government for the 21st century,” was preempted by the administration’s decision to push the pay freeze and retirement cuts before all else.
That shows the priorities of Trump, Weichert and Pon.