How to make the most of a government shutdown

Joanne Butler Contributor
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As the government shut down last night, here’s one outcome that nobody’s mentioned: an uptick in federal retirees. Call it Shutdown, Act II.

Neighbors Sam and Diana — both with long federal work histories — are puttering in their gardens this morning, planting bulbs.  Diana is smiling but Sam is not. Why? Because Sam is a ‘non-essential’ furloughed employee. Diana retired last year, which means that she received her October retirement payment right on time – on October 1, shutdown or no shutdown.

Sam’s unhappy because, unlike the Clinton-era shutdowns when workers were paid (later) for their furlough time, today’s fiscal constraints make paying people for furloughs an iffy proposition. Sam might receive his full pay, some pay, or no pay. He doesn’t know.

Sam is even more nervous as he’s seen some coworkers retiring due to rumors that future federal retirement pay may be calculated under a new, less-generous formula. But he’s heard that those who retire now, or in the past like Diana, won’t be affected.

Therefore it should be no surprise that, after munching his fifth antacid tablet of the day, Sam says to himself, ‘That’s it, the first day I go back, I’m filing for retirement.’

Who can blame him?  The patriotism behind JFK’s ‘ask not what your country can do for, ask what you can do for your country’ wore off long ago.

So don’t be surprised if in early January 2014, the media reports an uptick in fed retirements – as workers will retire right after their expected one-percent pay raise takes effect next year.

Most of these workers will be at the top tier of their pay system – the ones making six figures. This presents a great cost-cutting opportunity for Hill Republicans with sharp pencils and big erasers.

For example, it’s the federal government’s habit to have a six-figure ‘deputy’ manager alongside every six-figure manager (think: one for the price of two). Cost-cutting Hill Republicans should pressure agencies not to replace deputies who retire, and to reassign those deputies left standing into other positions.

Of course, feds will cry foul over the impact to ‘succession planning,’ claiming their deputies are being groomed for future higher management responsibilities. The answer: allow lower-level managers to rotate into special, as-needed assignments, instead of paying six figures to a ‘just in case’ deputy officer.

Besides the obvious cost savings to fed payrolls, the other, hidden benefit is that agencies with fewer employees have to make choices about devoting resources to programs under their ambit. High-profile programs (those which are likely to have Congressional attention) will be well-staffed, while low-profile ones (languishing on the dustheap of long-forgotten initiatives) will receive few, if any resources.

Here’s my advice to Congressional Republicans: once the furloughs are over, get ready to make the most of Act II, and use those fed retirements to shrink the government even more.