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Administration officials favor buyout blueprint


WASHINGTON -- If Congress does not approve a federal worker buyout plan, the government's ranks would be hit with damaging waves of layoffs, top Clinton administration officials told a House panel yesterday.

"If we do not have this managerial tool, the options are not pleasant," Transportation Secretary Federico Pena told a Post Office and Civil Service subcommittee on compensation and employee benefits. "People would rather take a buyout than be handed a slip of paper saying, 'Congratulations, you're gone.'"

The administration is seeking to cut 252,000 from the federal work force over the next five years, and one way to accomplish that goal is to use layoffs -- known in government jargon as Reductions in Force, or RIFs.

But the Clinton administration contends RIFs would leave workers demoralized, dislocated and despondent -- and would cause serious damage to the government's operation as a business.

The Baltimore area would not be immune to RIFs. The Social Security Administration headquarters in Woodlawn employs 15,000 and the Health Care Financing Administration 2,600.

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy joined Pena in the packed hearing room to make their plea for buyouts instead of RIFs. The hearing was a Who's Who of the administration, with a host of deputy secretaries and directors also testifying in favor of buyouts.

Under the buyout plan, an employee could get a maximum of $25,000, but that sum might not be necessary for many because amounts vary with existing salary levels and years of service. TC The buyouts would target middle managers.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the buyout plan would cost $519 million over five years, in part due to costs incurred to the federal pension system.

In arguing for buyouts, Mr. Babbitt painted some scary %o hypothetical scenarios.

If RIFs are pursued instead of buyouts, he said, seniority rules would preserve middle managers and bump lower-ranked employees -- many of whom work on the front lines performing critical tasks.

"By the time the bumping is over, the person [who gets laid off] may be a search and rescue specialist on Mount McKinley," Mr. Babbitt said.

Rep. Constance A. Morella, R-Md., a subcommittee member, said the layoffs would have another damaging effect -- the loss of women, minorities and young people from the federal ranks.

"There will be a major human cost in the loss of lower income workers -- those who can least afford to lose their jobs -- and also those employees who were last hired -- mostly women and minorities," she said. "The costs of loss of morale and of undoing the equal employment opportunity hiring of recent years are incalculable."

According to the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, a study of civilian workers in the military services found that 26 percent of those eligible for RIFs were minorities.

The administration is racing against the clock to get a buyout proposal through Congress. For buyouts to be cost effective, they must be offered by March 15 so that their cost can be offset by salary savings.

Congress must either move quickly to approve buyouts or face layoffs, due to federal budget constraints requiring built-in spending cuts for agencies.

Subcommittee members needed little persuading by the Clinton team. Indeed, the hearing sounded like a love fest at times.

"I would almost wager that you will -- for the most part -- be preaching to the choir when you emphasize to these subcommittees the need for enactment of the buyout provisions," Mrs. Morella said.

All of the original backers of the buyout plan, including Mrs. Morella, sit on the civil service committee, which oversees government employees.

Mrs. Morella cautioned that the panel's generally strong support for buyouts is not a reliable measure of congressional sentiment. "I think sometimes we operate in a field of dreams," she said. "The reality may not be what we were talking about today."

Rep. Patricia Schroeder, D-Colo., agreed that selling the buyout plan on the House floor will be difficult. For lawmakers unfamiliar with civil service issues, the buyouts look like unnecessary bonuses by a cash-strapped federal government.

"Try to explain the difference between RIFs, freezes and buyouts, and their eyes cross and glaze over and [they] gaze at you," she said. "They kind of stare at you like a deer staring into the headlights."

James L. Blum, deputy director of the Congressional Budget Office, made a plea for RIFs at the hearing.

"Layoffs are likely to be small -- less than 1 percent of the work force," he said. "Negative effects on morale can be mitigated . . . by informing workers early and involving employees in reorganizations."

Office of Personnel Management Director James B. King forcefully rejected that argument.

"It's a choice between right and wrong, good and evil, saving money vs. wasting money," he said. If RIFs are enacted, he added, "it is our future we're going to be putting out on the street."

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