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Sarbanes voices concerns to Howard County federal employees group

By Lindsey McPherson, lmcpherson@patuxent.com

3:42 PM EDT, September 19, 2012

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As the federal government tackles its wealth of fiscal issues, U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes said he is concerned the federal workforce will be the sacrificial lamb in the budget balancing process.

"I worry that it has become any easy target," he told about 30 members of the Howard County chapter of National Active and Retired Federal Employees at their monthly meeting held Wednesday at the East Columbia Branch Library.

Democrats — like Sarbanes, a Towson resident who represents part of Howard County in Congressional District 3 — and Republicans in Congress have always had ideological differences about how to balance the federal budget. Those differences have been exacerbated in recent years with the debt ceiling crisis and now the so-called "fiscal cliff" that would allow several tax cuts and subsidies to expire by the end of the year if Congress does not act.

"These are tough choices that are presented to us and the only way we're going to get through this is if the expectation is everybody is part of the solution," Sarbanes said.

Sarbanes said part of the problem in Congress right now is "the Republicans are dead set against any kind of revenue situations."

With no new tax increases or revenue measures being proposed, he said Republicans are instead calling for deep cuts, including hits to federal employees, who already have received pay freezes and adjustments to their pensions.

As co-chair of the Congressional Public Service Caucus, a bipartisan organization that works to advance policies that will help the government develop and maintain a well-trained, high-performing workforce, Sarbanes said he emphasizes to his colleagues the importance of having federal workforce "where moral is high and the mission is focused and the agencies are really working in full capacity.

"Because when that's happening, the public is being served," he said.

Sarbanes talked about a bill he sponsored called the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010.

"It became law and what it does is it establishes a set of (teleworking) best practices across the federal work place," he said. "We think the result of this is going to be ... more efficiency, higher morale, better quality of life for our employees (and) more flexibility."

In agencies that have already embraced the idea of teleworking, Sarbanes said productivity has actually gone up.

In addition, Sarbanes said he is interested in seeing hiring reform inside government agencies.

"Some of the practices for how we hire ... are still very cumbersome and outdated," he said, noting he and his colleagues are looking to streamline the hiring process "so it's more aligned with how the private sector goes into the marketplace, because that's who you're competing with."

Sarbanes spent an hour talking to the group, addressing questions they had about issues that affect them as federal employees, as well issues that affect them as citizens.

Afterward, Columbia resident Ron Somerville, a retired employee of the U.S. Department of State, said he appreciated Sarbanes' knowledge and understanding of the issues federal employees face.

Somerville said he also enjoyed his discussion of the ramifications of the fiscal cliff and his thoughts on how it might be handled. Sarbanes said Congress was likely to pass a six-month extension to several of the credits and subsidies that are set to expire, biding lawmakers more time to come up with a long-term solution.

Chuck Thomas, a Columbia resident retired from the Army, is a past president of the Howard County Chapter of NARFE. He currently serves on the organization's state and federal legislative committees, which aim to protect federal employee benefits.

Thomas said he agreed with Sarbanes's message that the federal workforce should not have to the bear the brunt of cuts to the federal budget.

"A lot of us are willing to do our share when it comes to the economy, but we want every one else to do their share, too," he said.

Added Susie Bell-Jones, a Columbia resident and retired employee of the National Center for Health: "He brought us very, very important news about the federal employees' benefits and things that we need to do to protect our retirement."

Bell-Jones emphasized that lobbying needs to come from both current and retired employees.

Meanwhile, Mike Santiago, a retired Social Security Administration employee who lives in Columbia, said he wished Sarbanes had come to the group with some information they wouldn't already have known about from reading the news.

"I didn't see anything new in what he was saying," Santiago said.