Va. congressman worried about payroll tax deferral, Schedule F’s impact on feds post-Trump

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The president’s recent Schedule F executive order is stoking a lot of fear and skepticism from employee groups unions and some members of Congress. The order allows agencies to reclassify career federal employees in certain policymaking positions into a new schedule of quasi political appointees. Virginia Rep. Don Beyer (D) is among those who are concerned. He told Federal News Network’s Nicole Ogrysko what worries him about the executive order, especially during the presidential transition. Hear more on Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Nicole Ogrysko: So Congressman, I wanted to start off by asking you a little bit about Schedule F, the Schedule F executive order that came from the president a month or two ago. What concerns you about this executive order and are you concerned that the current administration might use that order to try to move feds into this new schedule between now and Jan. 20?

Don Beyer: Yeah, I think Schedule F is potentially the worst thing to happen to federal employees in generations. And it’s ironic because it comes less than two years after the expansion, really the creation of parental leave for federal employees when they have a child. That was a huge step forward. And now essentially what Donald Trump is trying to do in his waning days is undo the Pendleton Act from the late 19th century, which established once and for all that federal employees were not political pawns, were not appointed because of cronyism. Yes, there’s a small percentage at the top that represent the president’s party and will – Cabinet secretaries and the like – but the rest are there to serve the American public writ large. Schedule F would give the president the ability to reclassify maybe up to 20% of the federal workforce and fire them at will, if he just doesn’t like who they are or what they stand for. Recently, we’ve seen that 88% of the employees of the Office of Management and Budget, which is the essential policymaking team, have been reclassified under the Schedule F. They could all be fired before Jan. 20, before the new president takes office. And I know there’s a deadline today for another one of the agencies to reclassify its employees.

Nicole Ogrysko: Have you and your colleagues been able to talk to other colleagues about this, and perhaps explain to them why you believe this is so harmful? I know there is a push to try to block this executive order through whatever budget mechanism you’re all able to pass here.

Don Beyer: Yeah we’re trying to block it and we have three different ways. The first is just a straightforward piece of legislation that makes this impossible. The problem is that with Mitch McConnell controlling the Senate with needing 60 votes, that’s not that likely. So now we’re trying to add it to the year-end budget package, the appropriations bill – that’s a lot more plausible. And we’re making a strong case that this is not partisan. This is not about Democrats or Republicans, it’s in the best interest of every party, knowing that there will be, again, Republican presidents and Democratic presidents, to make sure that the civil service serves all of us. And we’re very much hoping that that’s the case. However, as we have seen in the last four years, most Republican legislators at the federal level don’t want to do anything that’s seen to be breaking with Donald Trump. They are afraid not because they don’t disagree, but because they can’t risk the political harm it does to their futures. As we’ve seen, when you break with Donald Trump, you get death threats and everything else. And then the third thing is when Joe Biden takes office on Jan. 20, an executive order can be reversed. The problem is, if Trump has hired new people, that puts Biden right back in the same position of having to fire federal employees, which is something we don’t want to do.

Nicole Ogrysko: I wanted to switch gears a little bit and talk about something that I know is important to you. And that’s the payroll tax deferral policy. I believe you heard from a lot of your constituents earlier this fall about that policy, federal employees members in the military who are impacted by it. We are getting closer to the end of the year when they may have to pay those deferred taxes back. So what are you hearing from them? And what are you telling them about this particular issue here?

Don Beyer: Well, first of all, it was a really stupid executive order that President Trump put out back on Aug. 8, saying that basically, any employee in the United States could defer their Social Security taxes for the rest of the year and have to pay them next year. So that was the good news is boom, you get a 10% increase. The bad news is, you’d have a 20% decrease in your pay come 2021 just a few weeks from now, which is why virtually no private business in America picked up on this offer. They thought it would be crazy. And of course, if one of their employees left during this period of time, they’d be somehow responsible for tracking him or her down to get him to repay. But sadly, President Trump using his commander in chief authority deemed that federal employees and military personnel would get this “advantage.” We’ve been warned by many, many military officers that this is a terrible thing for the rank-and-file enlisted men and women who will spend the money and then not have it to pay back, and that there could be really in difficult shape. So we’ve been warning all of our constituents, both federal service and military service to please put the money aside to be ready for it. President Trump has said, well, we’ll just forgive it all. The dilemma with that is that you’re selectively forgiving taxes to people that they got to keep it and all the other people that didn’t get to take advantage of it don’t get that forgiveness. So it’s very uneven a benefit that would be pretty unfairly shared. But it could lead to all kinds of lawsuits. I think a more likely scenario, which I think the Ways and Means Committee staff has been pushing, is that instead of having to pay it back by the end of April, you let it be paid back over one year or two. So you just make it less painful on the payback.

Nicole Ogrysko: Is that something that specifically that the committee is working on – passing legislation that would allow federal employees and military members to pay it back at a slower rate, as you suggested, that is a specific effort?

Don Beyer: Nicole, it’s been talked about within the committee. I don’t think there’s specific legislation between now and the end of the year. But I do very much anticipate legislation in the first week of January to deal with this. And if I had to guess right now, you know, it’s a committee. So there are a lot of different people voting. I think the dominant idea was that forgiving it is unfair to too many other people, not to mention expensive. Making them pay it back right away will be really harmful to their budgets. So extending it over a long, much longer period of time, basically interest free, would be something that is fair and plausible.

Nicole Ogrysko: I wanted to ask you about the situation with Metro. I imagine many of your federal employee constituents maybe took Metro to get to work. They’re probably not taking it right now or not as many of them. And given that Metro has expressed some real concerns about its financial viability here in the future, are you concerned that Metro might not be in a position to accept those federal employees and you know, it might not be ready for them when they need to come back to work, whenever that is?

Don Beyer: I think Metro will be ready for those federal employees to come back. I mean, they’ve maintained service all through this pandemic, always spent a lot of money cleaning the cars every single day, to make sure that it’s relatively safe. And in fact, the scientific studies show that as long as people wearing masks, you’re not likely to be at great risk on the trains. However, we’re looking right now at Washington’s Metro at a $500 million budget shortfall for next year. So the general manager’s announced all kinds of cutbacks, closing a quarter of the stations laying off 2,400 workers, no service after 9 at night, no service at weekends. However, I think even within all those cutbacks, we’ll still be able to serve the vast majority of federal employees who do go back to work. However, we do expect that just because of the vaccine, we’re not going to see an instant turnaround. Many people have found they can be very effective teleworking, and many people are not going to be forced to come right back down to the office right away. Plus, it’s going to take as we know, some weeks, some months for the vaccinations all to kick in. But I think most people are looking at transit across the country, as in a multi-year recovery. And it’s one of the reasons why Speaker Pelosi has pushed so hard for more money for state and local government. We have enormous sunk cost, billions of dollars in transit across the country, just as we have billions of dollars in highways. And we don’t want it to waste away at a neglect. We need to maintain this critical investment for the long run.

Nicole Ogrysko: One last question for you, Congressman, you mentioned telework and federal employees. Do you hope or do you anticipate that an incoming Biden administration may be perhaps more amenable to having more federal employees work more often from home? I mean, you know we saw some cutbacks to telework during the Trump administration before the pandemic, but I wonder how you think or hope the incoming administration will handle it?

Don Beyer: I’m very optimistic that the Biden Harris administration will look much more favorably on telework. Yes, we really did have to fight back against Betsy DeVos and others who were trying to eliminate telework. I think, you know, one of the challenges we’ve had in the American economy is that the rate of increase in productivity has been pretty slow for two decades. And now all of a sudden, we find that people can roll out of bed go right to work without taking a shower or brushing their teeth. That productivity, in many ways is way up. We’re finding for example, that simply the approval of things like zonings, and things at the local level are going twice as fast as they did before. Because people aren’t stuck in meetings all day long. And they can be much more effective travel time and the like. So I’m hoping that this is good for the economy. It’s certainly good for people’s gas bills. And I think that this is something I hope that the Biden administration look favorably on. I have a dear friend who runs a big private company with more than 1,200 people, most of whom were working from home right now and his survey says versus none of them want to come back to the office. And as long as they’re making good money for the company, why bring them back?

Jared Serbu:  That’s Congressman Don Beyer talking with Federal News Network’s Nicole Ogrysko. Subscribe to the Federal Drive on Apple Podcasts or Podcastone.

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