Feds should not shoulder the burden of deficit reduction

Rep. Chris Van Hollen’s column is part of Federal News Radio’s special report, Now or Never: Ideas to Save the Failing Budget Process, in which eight budget experts offer their take on what can be done to fix the broken system.

Commentary by Rep. Chris Van Hollen

Congress has now passed a bipartisan budget agreement that replaces a significant portion of the job-killing sequester over the next year. Though not perfect, this agreement includes added resources that will support children’s education, development of life-saving cures, law enforcement and national security, and other vital government services. As we move forward, I will continue to do everything I can to fully replace the sequester, boost job growth, and protect our federal employees.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.)
Federal workers are hardworking, middle class Americans who are struggling through difficult times and yet no one group has been asked to contribute more to deficit reduction. We should be honoring their contributions, not asking them to shoulder a disproportionate share of the burden.

Federal employees serve in countless jobs that help our nation run. They guard our border, serve in the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency, and protect our national parks. They help seniors navigate the Social Security system and veterans access their benefits. They conduct life-saving research at places like the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And while many of them live in the National Capital Region, our federal workforce is comprised of hardworking public servants that live and work in all 50 states. But too often in recent years, federal employees have been asked to bear more than their fair share of our effort to reduce the deficit.

Federal workers have already contributed more than $130 billion toward lowering our deficit through pay freezes and through increases in the retirement contributions for federal employees hired starting Jan. 1, 2013. While I successfully fought to keep this from impacting current employees, we need to ensure that the federal government is able to attract talented new employees — we cannot keep whacking benefits from future workers. Federal workers with professional degrees make considerably less than their private sector counterparts, which can present significant retention problems.

Additionally, across-the-board cutbacks as part of the sequester, along with tens of thousands of furloughs, have weakened our nation’s ability to provide essential services while eroding the economic well-being of hundreds of thousands of middle-class federal employees. This came to a head during the government shutdown last October, which affected many federal agencies and employees. It was an unnecessary, self-inflicted wound that cost our economy $24 billion, according to Standard and Poor’s. No one should ever again attempt to gain a partisan advantage by threatening future shutdowns or defaults. Thankfully, Congress passed the legislation that I cosponsored to grant federal employees retroactive pay for the duration of the shutdown. Federal employees should not be made to suffer for actions that are no fault of their own.

As budget negotiations move forward, I will continue to work towards fully replacing the sequester over the long term, and to oppose the misguided approach to deficit reduction that attempts to scapegoat our federal employees by reducing their compensation. This policy is harmful and counter-productive, reducing our nation’s ability to administer essential programs while doing nothing to address the true drivers of our fiscal problems.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) is the ranking member of the House Budget Committee and served on the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, often referred to as the “supercommittee”. An advocate on federal employee issues, Van Hollen represents Maryland’s Eighth Congressional District.