Legislative and Federal Benefits Update, November 8 2011

The Senate is slated to vote on its version of the State and Foreign Operations appropriations bill this week, possibly as early as Wednesday.  Please join us this week in calling your senators to voice your support for maintaining the current levels of funding in the Senate bill, which provides nearly $6 billion more for the international affairs function 150 account than the House draft and requests funding for the current 16% level of Overseas Comparability Pay. Our goal and hope is to avoid any amendments which could eliminate OCP entirely.  Detailed instructions (with links) for how to call in follow at the end of this message.

Legislative and Appropriations Update

Congress is at last completing appropriations legislation to fund government operations, including the State Department, USAID, the Foreign Agricultural Service, and other international affairs agencies.  Currently, the government is operating under a Continuing Resolution that provides funding for federal departments, agencies, and programs until November 18.

The Senate plans to consider a package of appropriations bills this week which will include funding for Fiscal Year 2012 for the Department of Energy, financial services agencies and programs, and the Department of State and foreign operations programs.  Bundling three appropriations bills into a single package – known as a mini-omnibus or “minibus” – means that the entire package must be considered and voted on as a whole and generally means that the legislation is more likely to pass.  However, many amendments are expected to be offered, including some targeting critical funding of diplomatic and aid programs.  Contacting your senators and encouraging them to reject such harmful amendments and fight for robust funding for diplomatic readiness will help put our friends and supporters in Congress in a better position to negotiate the final version of this legislation when it is conferenced with the House of Representatives’ appropriations legislation.  

As Congress moves forward with this process, AFSA will be watching closely and advocating for our key priorities.  Although we are encouraged by a number of positive measures in the Senate version of the State/Foreign Operations Appropriations bill, a number of serious concerns remain about proposals in the House of Representatives that could impose severe cuts and seriously undermine diplomatic readiness.  We have also been closely monitoring the activities related to the so called “Super Committee” – although the unprecedented process has not been transparent. AFSA has been conveying the clear message that investing in the Foreign Service and in our respective agencies is the most cost-effective way to promote diplomatic readiness and advance U.S. national interests overseas.

Federal Benefits

The Super Committee has until Nov. 23 to make its recommendations for cutting the budget by $1.5 trillion over the next 10 years.  We anticipate that the international affairs budget will be a target, but we also foresee proposals to reduce federal benefits. The committee is authorized to consider cuts in mandatory spending, including cuts in federal and military retirement systems, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Congressional committees and groups have proposed a wide range of proposals for cutting federal benefits and the federal workforce for Super Committee consideration.  Some propose severe changes:  for example, to reduce the federal workforce by 10 percent, extend the pay freeze through 2015, change the period for calculating annuities from three to five years, increase employee contributions to FERS (the equivalent of FSPS) and CSPS (the equivalent of FSRDS) by 6.2 and 3 percent, respectively, eliminate FERS for new employees, and convert the federal health program (FEHB) to a voucher system.  Other proposals recommend more modest cuts or resist any cuts in federal benefits. 

A relatively modest White House proposal would increase employee annuity contributions by 1.2 percent over a period of three years, eliminate the FERS annuity supplement for new hires and provide for a single government-wide contract for FEHB prescription drug benefits as a cost-saving measure.  This proposal is likely to be the floor for negotiations.

There are other proposals or lack of proposals that warrant mention, including recommendations to cap government contractor salaries and to change the COLA calculation through use of a chained CPI.  Also, we note the Congressional failure to address the impending cut of 30 percent in Medicare physician payments, which will otherwise go into effect in January 2012.

At this point, it is difficult to make any predictions other than there will be federal workforce and benefit reductions.  The White House proposal is probably the best, but not the most likely, outcome we can expect from the Super Committee.

In the event the Super Committee cannot reach agreement or Congress does not approve its recommendations, automatic spending reductions - sequestration - will apply across the board.  If sequestration goes into effect, Social Security and Medicare benefits, as well as federal Civil Service and military retirement systems and federal low-income programs, will be exempt from mandatory cuts.

AFSA is working in this difficult environment to protect its members and the Foreign Service.  We are a member of the Federal and Postal Union Coalition, which is composed of more than two dozen federal organizations, such as the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU), American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) and National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association (NARFE).  Over the past year, the Coalition has sent letters to major decision makers at all the significant stages of the debt reduction discussions, including members of Congress, OMB, the White House and most recently, to the members of the Super Committee.  We were pleased to see that the President’s modest proposal for changing federal benefits reflected many of the arguments advanced by the Coalition.

How to Take Action
Step 1:    Call the U.S. Capitol switchboard at (202) 224-3121 and ask the operator to connect you to your senator’s office.  You can also find the direct number for your senator by finding their official site on the Senate web site.
Step 2:    Tell the staff person who answers the telephone where you live so he or she knows you are a constituent, then say:
- “I am an active-duty/retired Foreign Service employee.
- I am calling to urge the Senator to hold the line and vote for the version of the State Foreign Operations Appropriations bill as voted out by the sub-committee and to oppose amendments that would undermine diplomatic readiness or weaken the Foreign Service. 

- The sub-committee’s recommended appropriation has been well considered, and is the bare minimum needed to maintain a strong and effective foreign policy and protect America’s interests abroad.”
Whether you speak to a staff person or leave a recorded message, request that your lawmaker respond in writing to your phone call.  For that reason, be sure to leave your mailing address or email.  Contact only your own two senators.  Lawmakers will disregard your message if you are not a voting constituent.
AFSA reminds active duty Foreign Service employees that per the Hatch Act it is illegal to lobby congress using official time or government resources.  If you write or call your congressional delegation, do not use government time or resources (such as a government computer, letter head, telephone, etc).  If you meet in person with a congressional representative, you must take annual leave or schedule the meeting on your lunch hour.  In addition, make clear that you are writing or speaking in your individual capacity as a constituent and not as a representative of your agency, as required by the Hatch Act and the Anti-Lobbying Act