By Eric Katz; October 29, 2015
Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., was elected speaker on Thursday. Andrew Harnik/AP
The House on Thursday elected Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to be its next speaker, elevating one of the country’s elected officials who has most consistently targeted federal employees to cut spending.
Ryan rose to prominence in part when he put forward budget plans in several consecutive Congresses that aimed to eliminate annual deficits within 10 years. To accomplish that goal, Ryan proposed draconian cuts to federal agencies’ spending levels.
Part of those cuts went directly after the federal workforce: Ryan’s blueprints would have slashed the number of federal employees by 10 percent through attrition. Agencies would have been required to replace just one worker for every three that left federal service. He also pitched higher pension contribution levels, suggesting feds contribute 6.35 percent of their paychecks toward their defined benefit.
Ryan proposed continuing a federal pay freeze for three additional years, after it had already been in place for two.
The now speaker and former House Budget Committee chairman’s plan would have eliminated the Federal Employees Retirement System annuity supplement, which benefits those government workers who retire before the age of 62 and who are not eligible for Social Security. President Obama has also voiced support for doing away with the FERS annuity supplement.
Ryan’s plan would have eliminated the student loan repayment benefit for federal workers as well. In 2014, federal agencies doled out $58.7 million in student loan repayment benefits to more than 8,000 federal employees.
In 2013, Ryan negotiated with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a two-year budget deal that raised sequester caps, and as one of the offsets, increased feds’ pension contribution level to 4.4 percent. That plan only affected workers hired after 2013, however, grandfathering in existing employees.
Ryan has praised federal employees, saying his targeting of their pay and benefits was rooted in the need to cut federal spending.
“The federal workforce is composed of some of the best educated and most dedicated people in America,” Ryan wrote in his 2014 budget blueprint. “This workforce is integral to a well-functioning government. However, taxpayers must also receive an excellent value for their dollars.”
He also touted what he views as a disparity between private and federal sector pay, saying federal employees earn, on average, 16 percent more than their private sector counterparts.
“Federal workers deserve to be compensated equitably for their important work,” Ryan wrote in his plan, “but their pay levels, pay increases and fringe benefits should be reformed to better align with those of their private-sector counterparts.”
The extent to which these philosophies will translate to real reforms — his budgets were never adopted into law — remains to be seen. When accepting the speakership on Thursday, Ryan promised to empower committee leaders and rank-and-file members to take the lead in crafting legislation, rather than pursuing a top-down approach.
For now, federal employee groups, which have been fiercely critical of Ryan’s proposals in the past, are welcoming the change in House leadership.
The American Federation of Government Employees “wishes Mr. Ryan well in his new leadership role and looks forward in working with him to advance a legislative agenda that benefits federal programs and the employees who serve the American public every day,” AFGE President J. David Cox said in a statement. “We hope this will provide us with a new opportunity to put damaging austerity politics behind us and work together to build a government that can deliver the services Americans rely on.”
Other Ryan detractors warned his promotion could be a sign of bad things to come for federal employees.
“We should raise the alarm because Paul Ryan will now have more power to implement the anti-federal-employee proposals that have been in his budget,” Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., who served as ranking member on Ryan’s Budget Committee, recently told The Washington Post. Van Hollen promised to fight back against attacks of federal workers and Ryan’s larger views that he characterized as a desire to “shrink government down to where they can drown it in a bathtub.”