A senator with a large federal employee constituency said on Monday that he would not be surprised if the super committee decides to cut federal workers' retirement benefits as part of its deficit reduction plan.
"I will be very disappointed" if a proposal to increase employees' contribution rates to their pensions is included in the joint committee's recommendations, said Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., after a town hall meeting with federal workers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg. Cardin was not optimistic that federal employees would be spared from the super committee's chopping block.
He cited the Obama administration's proposal to raise federal employees' pension contribution rate by 1.2 percent over three years beginning in 2013 -- a rate of 0.4 percent each year during that time -- as another indication that cuts could be coming down the pike. Most government workers who are covered by the Federal Employees Retirement System currently contribute 0.8 percent of their basic pay each pay period to their pensions.
The super committee must present its deficit reduction plan to Congress by Nov. 23.
The Maryland Democrat, who has hosted several public forums with federal employees since August, said he has opposed further reductions to federal pay and benefits to the political leadership and his colleagues on the super committee. Cardin is close to Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., a member of the deficit reduction panel who has said he wants to protect federal employees from additional cuts if possible. The senator called federal employees "brave troops" who already are operating under a two-year pay freeze and are the subject of various proposals to reduce their pay and benefits. "They have been more understanding than I would have expected," Cardin said.
Cardin said that he thinks the super committee will present a deficit reduction plan that includes recommendations that can be approved immediately and others that can be referred to the appropriate congressional committees for further consideration. If a proposal calling for a reduction in federal retirement benefits is among the recommendations, the best-case scenario for employees, he said, is that it is referred to a congressional committee to consider in 2012.
The Maryland Democrat also commented on a bill approved by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee last week that would reduce the federal workforce through attrition by 10 percent over the next three years. "It's horrible," Cardin said, adding that if the House passes the legislation, "it won't pass the Senate." He said an across-the-board reduction in the federal workforce does not make sense: "They have to identify the cuts, then I will argue [for or against] it."
NIST employees asked Cardin a range of questions during the town hall on Monday, some focusing on the super committee's deliberations and others voicing concern over impending budget cuts and how they will affect the agency's ability to innovate. In response to a question on switching to a multiyear appropriations process, he said the Senate Budget Committee has proposed a two-year spending cycle to the super committee. "We've got to get you budget bills early," said Cardin, who along with Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., has introduced a bill that would prohibit Congress from considering any legislation unless a budget resolution is passed by the annual April 15 deadline. "We certainly have to end the practice of you working with [continuing resolutions]," he told federal employees.
Cardin said the main reason for his presence at NIST Monday was to express gratitude to federal employees for their public service and hard work. "I know the federal government, particularly Congress, has a strange way of saying thank you."
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