FEDERAL WORKFORCE:

Agencies grappling with a permanent state of uncertainty

When Leonard Miller was an attorney at U.S. EPA in the 1970s, he participated in a hypothetical "reduction in force," eliminating positions and rearranging employees like pieces in a three-dimensional puzzle.

But the exercise was more difficult than simply paring down staff. Miller described it as a game of dominoes, where one employee whose position is cut might have "retreat rights" to another position held by another employee with similar legal rights.

"What I remember is the amazing mess it made," he said in a recent interview. "You end up with a very funny arrangement. It's like you put a dime in here, and out the other side comes a cucumber."

Today, that scenario haunts not just EPA but all federal agencies that find themselves the target of Congress' attempts to decrease the deficit. Last week, the Office of Personnel Management sent agencies guidance on how to handle employees as the government undergoes "restructuring and downsizing in an increasing number of agencies" (Greenwire, Nov. 21).

Federal employees got a temporary reprieve when the deficit supercommittee announced yesterday that it was not able to agree on $1.2 trillion in cuts. The panel's failure is the employee's gain, as it ensures no immediate adoption of bipartisan proposals for federal pay freezes and increased contributions to pensions. It also delays across-the-board cuts until 2013 -- a time period that could see a pendulum swing in the country's political priorities.

But past and current federal employees say that the long-term upshot is more confusion in agencies that are already functioning in uncertainty.

"It's a super version of trying to live on a continuing resolution," said Donald Elisburg, a former assistant secretary of Labor who now is a consultant for government agencies. "Every day is another crapshoot. You can't give any certainty about programs; you can't give any certainty about promotions."

EPA may undergo more uncertainty than most agencies, thanks to its position as a GOP target for its regulations. The 2013 across-the-board cuts -- agreed to in August's debt-ceiling deal -- are slated to be divided between Defense programs and domestic spending. But several lawmakers are already calling for Defense to be exempt, and Republicans have criticized EPA for releasing too many rules that they say hamper business.

Meanwhile, Miller said, employees are relegated to watching a fiscal rolling stone that "could cause an avalanche, but you don't know where the avalanche is going to land."

Hugh Kaufman, a senior policy analyst at EPA known for his involvement in several whistle-blower cases, said one of his main concerns over the budget fight and funding uncertainty was morale. In 40 years at the agency, Kaufman said he had never seen such animosity toward EPA's work.

"The policy of this country was always to try to attract the best and brightest to public service," he said, "not to destroy the morale with cuts and put our country at risk. And it's because political dogma is trumping looking out for America."

But not all former EPA employees think the agency should avoid funding cuts. Roger Strelow, a former assistant administrator for air and water, said some concessions could be made in the rough economic environment. President Obama's delay of the ozone rule was a smart step, he said; inside the agency, funding for grants and other projects outside of enforcement priorities could perhaps be delayed until the economy turns around.

Strelow, who worked in the private sector after leaving EPA, also said doing more with fewer employees is not always negative. As an employee of a company that went through a bankruptcy and restructuring, he found that such downsizing sometimes "really helps people and programs to prioritize and focus better."

But the supercommittee's failure, he said, highlights the bigger issue of political extremism.

"It's just very sad to see the federal establishment as sharply divided and unable to compromise as they are," he said.

As Congress continues that debate, EPA and other agencies are ostensibly making plans on how to continue on less funding. But they face a laundry list of variables, among them proposals to cut this year's budget, the threat of a continuing resolution and numerous bills that would shrink the government workforce through attrition. The specter of 2013 cuts is another contingency to grapple with.

"Here you're waiting for the supercommittee to make an agreement or not make an agreement, and if they don't make one, there's an automatic cut that will take effect in a year or might not take effect," Miller said. "Now they say plan for that. How do you plan for that?"