In Congress, they’re saying, ‘Hail, hail the gang’s all here’

The new Congress might have been a bit slow getting started, but now it’s making up for lost time. A whole tray of bills having to do with the federal workforce and retirees has popped up in recent days. To get the details, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with WTOP Capitol Hill Correspondent Mitchell Miller.

Interview transcript:

Mitchell Miller
It’s really picked up just amazing how it happens just like that, it’s like a light switch goes off. So all of this, legislation just pouring out related to federal employees, federal agencies, very active House Republicans getting into their mode, where they’re going to do a lot of oversight. So we’re really seeing a lot of the bills starting to fly into the hopper right now.

Tom Temin
And let’s talk about the New Family Medical Leave Act legislation. This is one that comes up periodically, I think almost every session. Which would be giving comprehensive paid leave as the bill is headlined for federal employees. What’s going on with that one?

Mitchell Miller
Well, and this is a little bit different this year, for one thing, the supporters of FMLA pointed out that the Family and Medical Leave Act is now 30 years old this year and they really want to make some more changes to it. And there is an impetus, in part because of what happened during the pandemic, when so many people were dealing with sick kids, dealing with themselves being sick and their parents being sick. So there’s a move to expand it. Virginia Congressman Don Beyer (D-Va.) and Brian Schatz (D-HI) in the Senate from Hawaii, are both collaborating on this, trying once again to try to expand the FMLA. And related to the pandemic, what they would like to do is, allow federal employees to take up to 26 weeks of medical and family leave. Of course, currently, under the FMLA, employees can take up to 12 weeks for care of the baby or an ill family member, but it is not paid. This would be paid leave. Now again, this is an uphill battle, because Republicans in the House have made it clear that they don’t want to spend too much more money. But because of, I think the pandemic and some other issues related to the FMLA, there is a big push, at least among Democrats to draw out or get this expanded.

Tom Temin
Right. Are there any Republicans supporters for that you’ve seen in the House or Senate?

Mitchell Miller
There’s been talk among moderate Republicans, who would probably support this, but again, because the strength right now at least in the Republican Caucus, is related to people who want to scale back spending. It’s going to be interesting to see how this plays out.

Tom Temin
All right. And then there’s another one which really gets into the weeds, the standardization of annual annuity payments to retired feds. This is the Equal [Cost-of-living adjustment (COLA)] act. And that’s I guess, coming from Gerry Connolly (D-Va.).

Mitchell Miller
Right. And while it does get into the weeds, it all comes down to money. And of course, everybody’s thinking about their retirement in the federal government. And this would, once again, try to get a cost-of-living adjustment, the COLA, calculated now for Federal Employee Retirement System workers. Specifically, this would give retirees a full annual COLA to their annuity payments, basically, achieving parity with the retirees in the Civil Service Retirement System, who already get that annual COLA in its entirety. Basically, Gerry Connolly is saying, it’s a two-tiered system that’s just not fair for many federal employees. Because Federal Employment Retirement System employees, only get 1% below the fold COLA, depending on how much the inflation goes up during a particular year. For example, the latest COLA was 8.7%, and that was a real high increase, the highest one since 1982. But the retirees only got a 7.7% COLA. Connolly likes to refer to this as, the Diet COLA, because he just doesn’t think it’s fair to federal employees. He wants to, obviously, adjust this and it’s been getting a lot more attention, of course, because inflation has been so high and it has been so, prominent, a conversation. However, again, it’s going to face a tough battle to try to get through, Gerry Connolly knows this, as a Democrat. He’s reintroduced this many times. And there is still a lot of pushback from Republicans on this. But again, he’s highlighting the fact that there is some basic parity issues related to federal employees trying keep up with inflation. And one other thing is he points out that, even though it’s 1%, you think, Oh, well, that’s not a lot. But as he notes, that over time, every year the retirement adds up, he said that could actually add up to 10s of thousands of dollars for people.

Tom Temin
Well, I think the dusty tomes of yesteryear, will show you that the reason of the diet COLA had to do with the fact that, when they switched from CSRS to FERS, the first people also get Social Security. In return for a smaller annuity, CSRS people, in theory, don’t. They get that from their second career. But that aside, I think that was part of the rationale there and other people I guess, maybe, remember that.

Mitchell Miller
Yeah, that’s a great point.

Tom Temin
All right. We’re speaking with Mitchell Miller, Capitol Hill correspondent for WTOP. And the Federal Executive Board (FEB) reauthorization. This used to be a very active chain of groups in the cities that had large federal populations, that are away from Washington. Executives, locally, from different agencies would get together and decide things from snow policy or whatever else. And I didn’t realize they had not been authorized or funded for some time now,.

Mitchell Miller
Right, they really hadn’t. And so a few senators are trying to get momentum on this again, among them Gary Peters (D-Mich.), he chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, along with John Cornyn (R-TX.). And then Alex Padilla (D-Calif.). These are states that have many of these boards that do this local work with the federal workforce. And they’re trying to, basically, get this reauthorized, because it’s been kind of sitting there, as you noted. And not really doing much. And they point out that, for all the attention that many lawmakers like to point to the swamp and say that all the federal workers are here in D.C. As you well know, more than 80% of federal workers, actually, work outside of D.C. And a lot of them are in these areas in states, as I just mentioned. And so they want to try to get this reauthorized. But also, another impetus for this is there, as you well know, have been many studies showing that there are not a lot of younger people getting into the federal workforce. And this would also help to get those local tie ins with the federal agencies, to get people with internships and get them into those agencies at a younger age. Since we are moving on with a lot of baby boomers moving out of the federal government.

Tom Temin
Yeah. And the different cities have different flavors in their workforce and in their cultural approaches. And so, I think the Federal Executive Boards can be a pretty vital thing. I remember after 9/11, the New York Federal Executive Board really came together, because of the terrible localized conditions there, which really were much worse than Washington. That was, I think, a fine moment for the Federal Executive Boards.

Mitchell Miller
Right. And I think it really ties in. People a lot of time think, Oh, well, the federal government is somewhere else. But when you see the work on the ground, just as you mentioned, then it kind of makes it more real for people about what the federal government can do.

Tom Temin
All right. And getting to the final thing I wanted to ask you about, with respect to legislation, the [Stopping Home Office Work’s Unproductive Problems (SHOW UP)] Act. They had the hearings, trying to get the idea of telework back to the levels that were pre-pandemic. I noticed that the sponsors of that didn’t say, get rid of telework, let’s start over again. But at least to the pre-pandemic levels. But even that one doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

Mitchell Miller
Right, even though it’s moving forward in the House, Republicans have made it very clear, they want to get federal workers back into the office, they want to get them back into their agencies. But also, there was a back and forth during this argument related to the whole issue of the SHOW UP Act, which is sponsored by James Comer (R-Ky.), who of course, is now the House Oversight Committee chair. And some of the Democrats were pushing back and saying, well, if you go back to 2019 levels, which is what Republicans essentially were saying in this legislation, that Democrats argue that it would be taking the federal government backwards. People like Virginia, Congressman Gerry Connolly and others who have pushed really hard for telework, say that, well, if you just go back and try to put the genie back in the bottle, we’re actually going to move the other direction. And we’re not going to have enough people that can work back and forth. And so a lot of people, kind of in the middle here, are looking again, for some kind of hybrid, where you don’t necessarily say everybody has to get back every single day of the week. But at the same time, you don’t have people that are staying home and not getting into the office. And that’s part of the argument that many Republicans have made, is they think that people have been staying home just by choice and they don’t want to come in at all. And of course, then there’s a whole other argument about, how many people are actually going to get into these federal agencies here in the Washington area and what that’s going to meet for the real estate market. There’s a whole, as you know, a whole number of complicated issues related to this.

Tom Temin
Yeah, it really is a multifaceted issue. And there’s that little pressure from the city of Washington, the Washington, D.C. government. Which whose thinkers, I think are more aligned with the way Democrats in Congress think, in general. And so they would like, Muriel Bowser has said the mayor of D.C., either come back or consolidate in release the space you’re leasing.

Mitchell Miller
Right, exactly. And so that’s why there’s so much talk in D.C. now about whether or not some of these office buildings are going to be converted into condos or apartments, because if it’s just going to be a big empty building down near K Street or somewhere like that. D.C. is going to lose out on a lot of tax revenue. So there’s, again, a lot of big issues here.

Tom Temin
And what about some of the big nominees? I’m thinking of the IRS commissioner Danny Werfel. When is that going to finally get hearings?

Mitchell Miller
Yeah, that will come up before the Senate Finance Committee, this week. And he is going to get a lot of questions, no doubt, about the $80 billion plus, that’s going to the IRS under the Inflation Reduction Act. As you know, many Republicans very concerned about the fact that billions of dollars are going to go to the IRS. In fact, the house, basically, symbolically as their first piece of legislation, passed a bill that said that money should be taken away. They have made the argument that, this is all going toward IRS agents and many of them armed. But of course, that is not really correct. But it is going to hire a lot more IRS officials and IT people and so I’m sure Werfel is really going to get a lot of questions about that, because there’s a lot of money at stake for sure.

Tom Temin
Yes, he’s got a very fine, eye of the needle, to thread during those hearings. Absolutely. And what about Gigi Sohn for the Federal Communications Commission.

Mitchell Miller
She’s going to come up for a consideration again, before the Commerce Committee, the Senate Commerce Committee this week. And her nomination, actually, has really been stuck. It never went forward. A lot of Republicans have been charging that, she’s been critical of conservatives over the years and that she said some things that they have a lot of issues with. So she will certainly be under the proverbial senate hot Seat coming up this week.

Tom Temin
And just a final question, the State of the Union. I don’t know why people get so excited about that, It’s just every year, it’s one politician or another. The presidents, those are campaign speeches, I don’t care who it is. But there wasn’t a whole lot that the federal workforce or federal bureaucracy could take away from it. Aside from the ongoing battle over Social Security, that is being conducted publicly by the president and some of his opponents in the Senate. Any ripples left from it?

Mitchell Miller
Well, I do you think that’s a pretty significant ripple. Because, as you note, a lot of times the speech gets done and it’s a laundry list of things that are never really going to happen. But in this case, I think, it’s been really interesting to see the dynamic that the president, the White House is feeling pretty good about how he handled the State of the Union. And they feel like the Republicans have been boxed in a little bit. And, basically, saying, no, we can’t and won’t cut into Medicare and we won’t touch Social Security. And then, there’s even an internal battle within the Republicans, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who is actually the one who’s floated the idea of sunsetting the Social Security and Medicare and basically, having to reauthorize them every five years. That’s caused a political fireworks within the GOP. So in some respects, even though State of the Union, you can, kind of go, when it happens. In this case, I think there’s a lot of pushing back and forth now, because we’re going to be, of course, moving toward the debt ceiling battle. And so it’s kind of interesting to see how this first stage of that fight is taking place.

 

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