Buyouts needed to avoid expensive federal layoffs, Cabinet officials warn


WASHINGTON -- Several Cabinet secretaries appeared on Capitol Hill yesterday to warn that the lofty dream of "reinventing" the federal government will be --ed if they are not given a key tool: the authority to pay workers up to $25,000 to volunteer to quit their jobs.

If such permission is not granted, they warned, widespread layoffs could result this year and in the next few years in the effort to meet the Clinton administration's goal of reducing the federal work force by 252,000 by the end of the century.

While that prospect might not disturb a public weary of a bloated bureaucracy, the government officials said that layoffs would cost more than the buyouts in the long run. Among other reasons, layoffs would require severance payments and unemployment benefits.

In appearances before a joint meeting of the House subcommittees on Civil Service and Compensation and Employee Benefits, Interior Secretary Bruce E. Babbitt, Transportation Secretary Federico F. Pena and Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy urged enactment of the buyout measure as the only sensible way to reduce staff levels.

Their words were aimed far beyond the committee members, who already have approved the idea overwhelmingly. The fight will be in the full House and the Senate, where some Republicans have expressed concern that buyouts could produce short-term increases in the budget deficit, congressional aides said.

Committee members also used the hearing to try to persuade their constituents that while buyouts may seem like a boon for bureaucrats, they also are a money-saving tool.

"Most people believe that when you lay off somebody, you have taken the most economical step," Eleanor Holmes Norton, Washington's nonvoting delegate and a supporter of the buyouts, said after the hearing. Though it's "counter-intuitive," she said, buyouts save money.

In the most blunt testimony at the hearing, James B. King, director of the Office of Personnel Management, said Congress has a choice "between right and wrong, good and evil, saving money and wasting money."

With the buyouts, he said, officials can broadly target which positions should be eliminated. With layoffs -- known in government parlance as "reductions in force" -- the most recently hired are the ones to be let go.

"This is going to hurt women and minority group members disproportionately," he said. Long-term employees -- who make more money -- would stay on.

The layoffs and buyouts would be nationwide. Maryland has 300,000 residents who are federal employees.

Congress is facing a time crunch on the bill. Officials say that if it is not approved by March they will lose the opportunity to offset most of the buyout payments with salary savings in this fiscal year.

If the buyouts are not approved for this year, the Office of Personnel Management estimates that it might have to lay off 570 to 600 employees to meet budget and personnel targets.

Mr. Babbitt said that if the buyouts are not approved, his Department of the Interior would impose layoffs to help meet its target of shedding 849 positions this year.

Mr. Espy said that 850 employees in the Forest Service would have to be laid off this year if the buyouts are not approved. He estimated that layoffs would cost $72.3 million in severance pay, unemployment benefits and other costs. Buyouts, he said, would cost $24.7 million.

At the Transportation Department, Mr. Pena said that up to 800 employees of the Federal Aviation Administration could be laid off this year and next. Several hundred more would have to be laid off in the rest of the Transportation Department, he said.

The effort to reduce the federal work force has been complicated by talk of the buyouts. Officials from numerous departments told committee members that turnover is down significantly as employees have put off quitting in anticipation of buyout payments being approved.

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