Congress’ week of weird

Long speeches and piecemeal civil service reform mark the waning days of the 114th Congress.

“I know it’s long and somewhat tedious. I’ve been here a long time, so please be patient.” Thus spoke outgoing Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who is retiring.

He was already 19 minutes into the nearly 90-minute speech by then. We’ve learned his mother did laundry for casinos and 13 brothels. And that Reid and his siblings threw rocks at the Reids’ tinplate-sided outhouse while his mother was in there. His dad pulled a tooth with a pair of pliers. Next comes a loooooong review of legislation from Reid’s 30-year Senate career.

He avers he has no hate for President-elect Donald Trump. He who made up a story about Mitt Romney’s taxes decried the fake news phenom.

Behind him in the C-SPAN video, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), also retiring, is looking as if she’d like to be anywhere but sitting there for an hour and a half she’ll never get back. Her cellphone goes off and she reaches for it, checks messages or email. His aide struggles to stay awake at times.

The rambling, at times bizarre, dissertation provided just one of the surreal moments — albeit an extended one — in the conclusion of the 2016 session of Congress. A few more days of the D.C. work week, and then the 115th Congress will get underway on Jan. 3. On the 6th they’ll count the electoral college votes. Soon after, they’ll deal with Donald Trump.

With an hour to go before a government “shutdown,” the Senate passed the House version of the continuing resolution. The contention centered on something that’s bedeviled the Congress since the Truman administration, namely what to do about coal miners’ pensions and health care funds. The CR keeps out-of-work and retired coal miners covered for the duration of the CR.

If the next Congress bails out this pension fund, will other under-funded pensions line up for help? A better strategy might be to reform the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, says this issue brief from the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. The PBGC itself reports a deficit of $56.8 billion in its multi-employer program, which includes the coal industry and covers 10 million people. As things stand, it could run out of money in less than 10 years, thanks to the deteriorating outlook for some of the plans. Then what? Congress would have to turn to you-know-who — the taxpayers.

In another last minute move, passing the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress papered over another long-standing issue. To the NDAA it added a provision limiting to 14 days the amount of paid administrative leave for federal employees accused of wrongdoing. A Government Accountability Office report a couple of years ago showed a handful of cases where paid leave went on for months, even years.

This could be strange. Complicated cases or cases where the charges are serious take weeks or months even for the evidence to be collected. Back in March, the GAO found  that between 2011 and 2015, 116 Homeland Security employees had been on such leave for a year or more.

Is that bad in a civil service system with 2.3 million employees? Seems like Congress is putting a thumbs down on a symptom of something that required a more comprehensive approach. In any case, the 10-day law doesn’t take hold for a while. The Office of Personnel Management will have to create the specific regulations, and you know how that goes. Think “phased retirement.”

Federal employees, and the public they serve, deserve a more thoughtful and comprehensive way to modernize civil service.

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