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Paid leave expansion for federal employees advances after contentious committee debate

The House Oversight and Reform Committee on Tuesday advanced legislation that would expand family and sick leave for federal employees, allowing them up to 12 weeks of paid time off to recover from a personal medical condition or care for a sick spouse, child or parent.

The committee voted along party lines after a lengthy debate on the bill, known as the Comprehensive Paid Leave for Federal Employees Act.

It essentially replaces the 12 weeks of unpaid leave federal employees have now under the Family and Medical Leave Act with paid time off. The legislation also expands the 2019 law that granted paid parental leave to most federal employees to the entire workforce. Postal Service workers were left out of the original law.

Democrats and Republicans sparred over providing paid leave benefits to federal employees at a heated hearing on the legislation last month.

That debate continued today, with Republicans arguing federal employees already have too much paid time off, on top of telework and other flexibilities agencies have provided and sustained throughout the pandemic.

“Rather than ensuring federal agencies are meeting their missions — especially in the wake of COVID-related shutdowns — we are considering expanding another benefit for the already-well-paid and well-protected federal workforce, the possibility of an additional 12 weeks of paid leave, renewable every year at the taxpayer’s expense,” said Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), the committee’s ranking member. “Yes, you heard that correctly.”

But Democrats disputed the characterization. They see the legislation as a way for the nation’s largest employer to set an example for the rest of the country — and recruit and retain talent within an aging federal workforce.

“Some opponents of this bill have said that federal employees already have paid annual and sick leave benefits, and that is true. But these benefits serve a fundamentally different purpose than comprehensive paid family and medical leave,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), the oversight committee’s chairman. “Federal employees should not have to deplete their sick or annual leave because of Congress’ unwillingness to provide paid leave to deal with longer-term hardships. After more than a year of a global pandemic, why would we accept policies that actually create an incentive for workers to come to work sick because they can’t take a sick day?”

Employees must work for their agencies for at least 12 months before taking leave. The bill would also cover paid time off for employees who experience a still birth or act as a surrogate for another family.

The legislation would cost $53 million over 10 years, Maloney said, citing a preliminary score from the Congressional Budget Office.

“It is impossible that this only costs $53 million over 10 years,” said Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.), who suggested the figure must run closer to the tens of billions of dollars. “There’s no way providing federal employees four months a year of not working only costs $53 million over 10 years.”

Republicans said they didn’t see the CBO score before Tuesday’s markup, and they disputed the office’s findings when Maloney’s staff began to distribute them to committee members during the meeting.

CBO, which usually doesn’t conduct a full budgetary analysis of pending legislation until it advances to the House floor, said its initial budget assumptions for the paid leave bill didn’t include the Postal Service.

The bill would “increase off-budget direct spending for the Postal Service by a significant amount over the five-year period,” CBO said, and USPS would have to reduce its expenses to accommodate them.

“We find it hard to believe this CBO score, and we have questions for the Congressional Budget Office,” Comer said. “Due to the fact that it doesn’t include the cost and the effects on the Postal Service… we need to know what not only the cost of that has to the Postal Service, but also what are the effects to the mail?”

Committee members then spent several minutes arguing what parliamentary procedures they could use to adjourn the markup before voting on the paid leave bill. Those attempts failed, and the legislation advanced along party lines.

Federal vacancy law updates move forward

Tuesday’s markup started calmly enough, with the committee easily passing legislation that will allow agency inspectors general to keep working during a government shutdown, as well as a bill that attempts to clarify federal guidance for the public.

The committee also advanced legislation designed to update the Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998.

Under the Accountability for Acting Officials Act, officials must have at least one year of experience at their agencies before temporarily filling a leadership role that ordinarily requires Senate confirmation.

Under current law, acting officials can temporarily serve in Senate-confirmed positions for up to 210 days. This bill, which Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) introduced, would reduce that time to 120 days and give an administration additional time if the Senate is considering a nomination.

Democrats say the bill would close loopholes in existing federal vacancies law, gaps they say past administrations have exploited. Former President Donald Trump named 30 acting cabinet officials throughout the course of his presidency, more than any other president in at least the last 40 years, Maloney said.

Republicans, however, believe the legislation would limit the president’s powers to choose his own acting officials, restrictions they believe are both partisan and unconstitutional.

“In other words, the bill requires the president to pick a longer-serving federal bureaucrat over a fresh face who might be more willing to carry out the president’s policies,” Comer said.

The oversight committee eventually advanced the bill, again, along party lines.

“His duty — any president, regardless of party — is not just to stick a fresh face willing to carry out the president’s policy into these important government positions,” Porter said. “It is to appoint and nominate a qualified person, and the Constitution equally puts a duty on the Senate with regard to these executive roles to consider these positions and to vote. The argument that this is an intrusion into executive processes, I think, misunderstands the important, residual constitutional duty on Congress to conduct oversight on the executive.”

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