Gridlock and your pension package!

Is congressional gridlock really a bad thing? Maybe not if you're a federal employee or retiree, says Senior Correspondent Mike Causey.

This is supposed to be the year of total gridlock in Washington. So, is that really a bad thing?

Federal and postal workers, and retirees too, are good examples of groups who actually benefit from gridlock. Some feds spent a lot of time last year fearful Congress (or the White House) would carve up their benefits package to save money and, in some cases, out of spite.

In 2014, the to-do-list of many pols included plans to charge workers more, via payroll deduction, for their CSRS and FERS benefits. It could have resulted in a pay cut of 2, 3 or even 4 percent.

Also on the list was a big budget saver — a plan to trim future cost-of-living adjustments for current and future retirees by 0.3 percent each year, every year. People would still get COLAs. But in a diet-version.

NARFE’s Jessica Klement estimated the typical CSRS retiree would miss out on $50,000 in future benefits if the COLA calculation change was made. It wasn’t, in part because of gridlock.

We are told — by politicians and the press — that gridlock in Washington is bad. Because, well, because nothing happens. But is that always bad?

Gridlock makes news, of a sort, for the news hounds. And it provides full employment for politicans we elect to correct what they did or didn’t do in their previous term. Despite the “landslides” in the 2014 election, most incumbents in gerrymandered districts kept their jobs.

There is an upside to gridlock, especially for active and retired members of the federal family. It kept politicians with political, personal or fiscal axes to grind (out of your hide) from chopping up your benefits package. Feds even got a token raise. While only 1 percent (same as this year) it was 100 percent more than they got in 2013, 2012 and 2011.

For decades now (under both Republican and Democratic regimes) feds have worried about attacks on the benefits package. The few changes that have been made — higher pension-plan contributions from feds hired after 2013 — didn’t touch anybody already on the payroll. The changes were prospective. But the big (immediate) savings, obviously, would come if the changes were applied retroactively. That is, to people already in government. Like you. Before you say they can’t do that because we’ve got a contract, think about who would be doing it. I.e. the people who make the laws.

Several weeks ago, a long-time pro-federal lobbyist agreed that 2014 gridlock protected feds from benefit cuts. And that the lull in fighting gave unions and associations time to regroup. Even win a few fights.

Now that Republicans control both the House and the Senate some “experts” say feds are in for a rough ride. Several key House members have said they want to reconsider Uncle Sam’s three-legged defined-benefit (the FERS benefit, Social Security, plus optional TSP investments) at least for newcomers. The outgoing Postmaster General proposed Congress use the Postal Service to test out a retirement package without the defined-benefit FERS component. If it worked, and he thinks it would and save a lot of money, it could be introduced to other federal agencies.

There are other “experts” (we are all mostly self-annointed) who say 2015’s gridlock may be even worse. And that maybe that’s not such a bad thing.


By Julia Ziegler

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Social Security Administration created comic books to help spread the word about social security to a younger audience. (View an example from SSA.)


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