Scaring the Federal Employee: Furloughs, Pay Cuts, Hiring Freeze and Benefit Reduction

Look for scary stories about the impact on your federal career as a result of this week’s election. Our advice: take a deep breath and think about the new political structure before jumping to conclusions.

Now that the national elections are (almost) over, federal employees can plan on reading numerous scary columns about the impact on the federal workforce.

With a budget deficit of over one trillion dollars each year, a rapidly growing federal government, and the reaction of the voting public to changes over the past two years by substantially changing the balance of power in Congress, our national politics will change as politicians immediately begin seeking an advantage for the elections in 2012. And, based on comments from readers on this site, many who work for the federal government are also concerned about our country’s future for similar reasons.

Based on email and comments from readers, here are some of the scariest prospects for federal employees:

(See Want to Cut Federal Spending? Here Are Proposals to Cut Federal Benefits)

While no one can predict what will happen during the lame duck Congress coming up or what will happen when the new Congress meets in January, the election resulted in an increase of at least 60 Republicans in the House of Representatives, the largest number of House pickups since the Democrats won 75 seats in 1948. Democrats kept a small majority in the Senate but, with the significant changes in the election and the fact that one-third of the Senate will be facing the voters in 2012, we can expect changes in the balance of power there also.

Government debt, government spending, government intrusion in the daily lives of Americans and the state of the economy are issues that were significant in the minds of voters as they went to the polls this week. While many Americans who do not have daily, in-depth contact with the federal workforce may assume that federal employees vote in one bloc according to the preferences of unions that represent many employees, we have found in conducting surveys of our readers on political topics over the past few years that federal employees usually vote in ways that are very similar to the general public and, not surprisingly, articles appearing shortly before the election this week warning federal employees about the danger to their careers and benefits if the Republicans were to gain power.

So, now that the election results are in and the Republicans do have control in the House of Representatives, what changes are likely to occur?

When a similar series of events occurred in 1994 under President Clinton, Bill Clinton worked with the Republicans in Congress and a number of changes did occur, including major changes to the welfare system and a surplus in the federal budget.

There are several significant differences today. One difference, of course, is the differences between the two presidents. As one author wrote: “Some of Clinton’s advice-seeking was eccentric, but it revealed a willingness to listen and an instinct for brutal self-critique that, at least to date, has hardly been Obama’s signature.”

In other words, President Obama is less of a pragmatic politician such as Bill Clinton and, instead, a president with a much stronger ideology guiding his decisions.

And, of course, the Republican leaders are different personalities than those in 1994 as well and, in many ways, the American electorate has become much more aware of politics and political positions have become much more rigid with more stringent advocates for the various positions. “We’re determined to stop the agenda Americans have rejected,” according to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)

What may be shaping up as an intense political battle characterized more by word bombs and castigation of opponents than real cooperation between the competing political interests. There may even be some of this in the upcoming “lame duck” session of Congress as elected representatives evaluate their standing with the voters as they begin to prepare their public image for the next election cycle.

The reality is that dramatic changes to federal benefits are not likely in the current environment. We can expect a big budget battle in Congress. Look for threats of a government shutdown (again) and discussion of a federal pay freeze when that debate happens.

Major changes to the federal retirement system in the next two years are unlikely. There is a chance that the House is going to pass legislation that would have an impact on federal pay and benefits. It is less likely that dramatic changes will be approved by the Senate or signed by the President. Keep in mind also that legislative changes that may impact the federal workforce may also, based on past experience, be applied to future employees rather than reducing the benefits of current employees.

This does not mean that major changes cannot or will not occur. Our political environment is shaping up to be volatile in the near future. If the current trend continues, and the full Congress and the White House get the message from voters for a smaller government, significant reductions in government spending, and less government intrusion in the daily lives of Americans, the political will necessary to make serious cuts in federal spending is likely to occur.

In short, the election results this week are likely to result in a less dramatic legislation and more gridlock insofar as proposals directly impacting the federal workforce. There are likely to be specific proposals emerging that would impact the federal workforce, including changes to pay and benefits. Actual implementation of many of these proposals are unlikely in the near future. What may be more significant is an awakening in the political interest intensity among many Americans that has long been dormant as the electorate was generally satisfied with government and secure in their belief that the future was bright for Americans. What we are seeing is people taking a greater interest in their government and how it impacts their lives.

We will, of course, keep our readers advised of changes that may have an impact on them as these occur.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47