Erich Wagner | December 5, 2018 | 0 Comments

Budget Analysts: Bill Targeting Official Time Would Cost More than It Saves

Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., introduced the measure targeting official time. Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., introduced the measure targeting official time. Lauren Victoria Burke / AP file photo

This piece has been updated to include information about upcoming changes to the bill.

Budget experts have concluded that a bill that would cut the pension benefits of federal employees who are compensated by the government for union representational work would not be successful in saving agencies money.

The Congressional Budget Office last week issued its cost estimate for the Official Time Reform Act (H.R. 1364), introduced by Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., and found that while the bill could lead to $30 million in savings over the next decade, it also would cost $100 million to implement. 

The bill, which was approved by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee last year but has yet to see a floor vote, would prevent federal workers who spend at least 80 percent of their work day on official time from counting that day toward their retirement benefits. It also would make such employees ineligible for bonuses, prohibit employees from performing lobbying activities while on official time, and, because it is retroactive to October 2017, it would require employees to repay bonuses they have already received.

But Amanda Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for the committee, said lawmakers are working on changes to the bill to remove the provision applying it retroactively, which she said will significantly decrease its implementation costs.

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According to CBO’s analysis, $24 million of the $30 million in total savings would come from a reduction in benefits for future retirees.

“Using data from a Government Accountability Office report in 2014 and information collected from several smaller federal agencies, CBO estimates that less than 0.1 percent of the federal workforce—about 1,600 employees—spent between 50 percent and 100 percent of their work year on official time,” CBO wrote. “Applying that estimate to an analysis of the length of service of current federal employees, CBO estimates that the bill would eliminate about 13,000 years’ worth of creditable service once the affected employees retired . . . H.R. 1364 would eliminate the equivalent of about 20 full pensions, on average, in 2019, rising to 140 pensions by 2028.”

CBO found that the cost of enforcing the bill would far outweigh the savings, and that savings would dry out by the end of the 10-year budget window, as employees would simply shift to spending just less than the 80 percent threshold on official time.

“CBO estimates that implementing H.R. 1364 would increase spending subject to appropriation by $100 million over the 2019-2028 period because it would require federal agencies to collect and analyze the information in order to recalculate the annuities of affected employees,” analysts wrote. “[Given] the need to locate, extract, and parse at least 20 years’ worth of timesheets for affected employees, CBO expects that the average cost of processing a retirement would double under H.R. 1364.”

Gonzalez said that by ensuring the bill does not apply retroactively, it would remove the requirement for OPM to review old records whenever an employee files for retirement, significantly reducing, if not outright eliminating, the $100 million price tag.

"This legislation was not intended to retroactively punish employees for actions that were perfectly permissibly at the time—it’s intended to modify behavior moving forward," she said. "Taxpayers should not be paying employees to spend 100 percent of their time engaged in taxpayer funded union official work. The Official Time Reform Act will disincentivize this practice moving forward. Rep. Hice and the Oversight Committee will continue to work with OPM to make the necessary changes to better reflect the bill’s intent."

Despite the coming changes, Gonzalez said she did not expect that the bill would come to the floor for a vote before the end of the year. That leaves the bill's future in doubt, as its sponsors will need to reintroduce the legislation under the next Congress, when the House will be under Democratic control.

The practice of official time has been under siege by the Trump administration and some Republican lawmakers. In May, the president issued an executive order seeking to, among other things, limit the amount of official time federal workers use to 25 percent of their work hours. Since then, that edict has been struck down by a federal judge, although that decision is currently under appeal.

Last month, the Veterans Affairs Department unilaterally ended the ability for medical employees to use official time, arguing the practice conflicts with direct patient care. That decision is the subject of a separate lawsuit brought by several unions.

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