NARFE LEGcon19 Summary – Alexandria Virginia – 10 to 13 March 2019
Prepared by: Robert Ruskamp Date: 23 March 2019
President, Nevada Federation
The following is a summary of the NARFE Legislative Conference (LEGcon19) held in Alexandria, VA from Sunday, 10 March 2019, through Wednesday, 13 March 2019. I was the only attendee to the conference from the state of Nevada.
The general event consisted of morning and afternoon plenary sessions in which NARFE officials and public political (Congressional) figures addressed the participating NARFE membership. There were a total of four breakout sessions, which addressed the following topics: Advocacy, NARFE-PAC, Mock Congressional Meetings, and Making the Most of Hill Day. Conference attendees were divided into groups that were rotated through each of the breakout sessions.
Entries in the summary preceded by “Q/A” are points that were raised during question and answer part of the respective sessions.
Sunday, 10 March – Afternoon General Plenary: The NARFE National President, Mr. Ken Thomas, made introductory remarks and introduced the NARFE HQ staff. He then commented on working with Congress and the need to work across the aisle. There have been a total of 21 government shutdowns, which are counterproductive. There is a continuing challenge to federal benefits. Members need to contact their legislators to voice their disapproval. The Civil Service needs to be modernized. CSRS anuants are relatively fortunate. The Federal Long Term Care Program needs reform. All politics start at the local level. Congressional staff provides the key to legislators. NARFE represents the interests of about five million employees and retirees.
The NARFE Vice President for Advocacy, Ms. Jessica Klement, gave a review of the 115th Congress. Threats remain and about $192 billion has been taken from federal benefits. There is discussion of such measures as eliminating FERS COLAs, going from high three to high five years to compute annuity, eliminating the FERS annuity supplement, and reducing the yield of the TSP G-Fund (the only “safe” option in the TSP). The NARFE message is resonating on the Hill. The proposed Postal Reform bill could have a huge ripple effect since it implies change in (health) benefits during retirement. The Pay Freeze has been overridden. There is a need to keep harmful measures out of legislation and NARFE needs to strengthen its opposition. Budget threats remain (e.g. Postal Service Task Force). The Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP) reform is not likely to pass. We need to improve COLAs. FERS retirees will not receive the full amount. The current consumer price index formula (CPI-W) is tailored to urban wage earners who are age 62 or less. When visiting legislators, talk about what NARFE does, capitalize on what you did in your career, emphasize its meaning, and give a dollar value if you can. Try to give the shutdown a personal face. NARFE sponsored a Shutdown Central information page on its website and strengthened its image as a benefits information (expert) source. A bill to end uncertainty was passed to guarantee feds back pay. In grassroots, about 200K NARFE members represent over 5 million feds. Advocacy should keep it simple and make it personal, but avoid politics. NARFE PAC helps strong supporters, builds relationships, maintains relevancy, and puts NARFE “at the table”. NARFE goal was to take in $1.5M, but received almost $1.9M. This supports advocacy (for example: sending NARFE members to local fundraisers). The PAC still needs more sustainers, as these form the backbone of the
PAC effort. Q/A: How to identify specific legislative issues. Need to address the President’s Budget and budget cuts. There is a recruitment and retention problem (6% are under 30 years old and less than 1% are under 25 years old). Shutdowns lead to demoralization. Mr. Ken Thomas (NARFE National President) discussed the air traffic control shutdown exemption and pointed out that shutdowns also affect state and local governments. Should maintain choice for feds (e.g. Postal Reform and Medicare). Helen Zajak (RVP, Region VIII) suggested offering membership applications to staffers during the meetings. Molly Checksfield and Jessica Klement then gave remarks on orientation and logistics for “Hill Day”. Monday, 11 March – Morning Plenary: The director of the Federal Managers Association (FMA) introduced herself and gave introductory remarks. FMA was a cosponsor of the conference.
Rep. Anthony Brown (D-MD): Feds work for quality of life and the country acknowledges this service however, President Trump sees Feds as easy targets. There is a need to push for higher COLAs. Funding fights stand before us. Government shutdowns are not acceptable. Retroactive pay for furloughed federal employees is now a fact. There is too much outsourcing of government work. It is most important to avoid government shutdowns. The Overseas Contingency fund is not a viable solution. In addition, we need non-DoD funding since this also has national security implications. There are currently about 40,000 vacancies in the Veterans Administration. We need more investment and support for unions. He discussed the Democrat platform to improve accountability and voting rights. Q/A: An Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) retiree made comments and pointed out problems, such as lost data, that resulted from the shutdown. We need a better public relations (PR) program for government employees.
Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD): We need to fight for federal benefits and defend the federal service as noble calling. The government is an instrument of public policy. We need to return to constitutional principles, such as separation of church and state and the emoluments clause. Q/A: Congress needs to make more progress. Possible consideration of line item veto for legislation. The senator pointed out that it is tough even to get a budget passed. The issue of political rights for DC residents (possible statehood) was mentioned as well as legislation for automatic continuing resolutions (CR). President Trump is attempting to “work around” Congress. We need more Congressional control and a return to onstitutional basics.
Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA): Government employees are most important since democracy works only if government works. He spoke on what he called the “seven points” of optimism. He praised NARFE activity on the Hill. In terms of policy he favors: a paid family leave bill, paid bereavement leave, and a commitment to the CPI-E and reject the chained CPI. The Social Security Fairness Act repeals the Windfall Elimination Provision (government pension offset). There should be an option to opt out of Medicare Part B. He stated that a government shutdown is a “stupid tactic”. The President’s Budget is only a wish list. Q/A: We have massive national debt. The senator considers himself to be a deficit hawk, but socially progressive. The current budget is half for the Department of Defense (DoD) and half for “other”. The Iraq invasion of 2003 was a mistake and Congress needs to take back its powers regarding war making. Personnel problems in the White House were bad under President Obama, but are worse under Trump. The accounting for the refunding of Social Security is “a bit vague”. Breakout 1 – Advocacy (M. Checksfield): Advocacy is a year-round effort, which requires preparation of goals, focus, starting dialog, and communication. NARFE maintains a Legislative Action Center (LAC) on the website. Communications is the key. Have others join in advocacy and view webinars. NARFE leaders are looked to for their experience. There is a NARFE toll-free phone (800) number. Attendees need to take their skills home and find persons to help take follow on steps. The Advocacy Department helps to make this easier. Some issues need immediate action for which personal email is best. Attendees should keep legislator and staffer business cards for reference. The Congressional recess period is the best time to schedule meetings in the home district. NARFE maintains an online calendar. The budget process operates year round. The President’s budget is only a blueprint and the full budget for 2020 is expected to be available during the coming week. The preliminary came today. All proposals are “pay-fors” for other legislation and threats will remain when budget complete. August is generally the best time to schedule home district meetings. One can also arrange meetings in June or July, but there might be more competing groups. Community events are also a possibility (check public calendars). Can invite legislators to summer social (chapter/federation) events, which can be used to present concerns (election campaigns, newsletters, etc.) and to build relationships. NARFE quick action on time sensitive issues is important. Information can go to everyone and members can update their email addresses online. Q/A: There were several suggestions and discussion of problems regarding email addresses. One problem is how to appeal to millennials. There is a newsletter size reduction issue and a need for information sharing. It is effective to emphasize state and district impact. Have a relevant story, and present reasons to support, or oppose, legislation. Work with congressional district leaders (CDLs) and senate leaders (SLs) to build relationships. Remind legislators and staffers of your NARFE membership. Find common ground, say thanks, be relevant, cut out jargon, and tell a compelling story. Remember that it is okay to say “I don’t know”. Stay informed, stay involved, and use the NARFE event feedback form (available online).
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA): The senator addressed the shutdown and acknowledged NARFE support. He stated that it is an honor to promote government work. The shutdown will have ripple consequences. He named as examples the problem of providing child care, the “lockout” problem (workers bared from office access), coverage of withdrawals from TSP, and the back pay guarantee. He formally objected to Congress adjournment during the shutdown and discussed voting on the back pay bill. The President’s budget proposal is bad! The overseas contingency provision amounts to a “slush fund”. NARFE support is needed to shape budget. The President’s proposed boarder wall is a non-military “emergency”, which will affect the Military Construction (MilCon) budget. NARFE support helped get us out of the shutdown with fixes. There is a danger of tyranny if there are no civil service protections. He closed by thanking NARFE for its support.
Breakout 2 – NARFE PAC (Ross Apter): Mr. Apter addressed the basics of NARFE PAC, which is the political arm of NARFE. NARFE now has a new PAC pin for contributors. The PAC is non-partisan and is not for presidential election (i.e. Congress only). The PAC fund is separate from notepad, calendars, and other income. No membership dues money is given to candidates. The PAC has relevancy on national scale. It helps to promote strong legislative supporters, builds relationships, supports attendance at fundraisers, etc., and shows engagement and advocacy. The PAC continues to grow in relevancy. Mr. Apter presented the 2018 spending chart. NARFE may spend up to $5,000 per legislator for primaries, and up to $5,000 for national ($10,000 total). The PAC is becoming more effective with 213 of the supported candidates winning and only 17 loosing. One example is the victory of Rep. A. Spanberger (D- VA), who has much government experience. NARFE needs “facetime” with legislators, and not just contribution checks. NARFE members attended almost 400 events during the last cycle. The Leadership PAC is separate. Locals attend district events and some members have good relations with legislators. PAC goals for last year were largely met, except for new sustainers. We expect the 2020 election campaign to be very competitive. The NARFE consultative process is generally as follows: Candidates solicit for NARFE support. Federation presidents and CDLs/SLs consult with locals for input. NARFE then weighs consideration factors, such as candidate appearances at NARFE local events and responses to the NARFE candidate questionnaire. Q/A: PAC leaders can set up one-on-one fundraisers with legislators (e.g. informal coffees). Leadership PACs were mentioned. A Political Report is available to provide information on the status of Congressional races. There is an ongoing cycle of PAC contributions with different possible levels of awards for candidates and legislators. The minimum is typically $1,000. Don’t mention NARFE PAC on the Hill or local district offices!
Afternoon Plenary – Staff Panel: There was an introduction and backgrounds of panel members. Congressional district offices are the primary venue. The legislative assistant, rather than the legislator, is the policy expert. It is easier to schedule meetings at district offices during recess. Advocates should be passionate about issues, even if there are only one or two. The panel members gave tips on how to conduct the meetings. Arrive a maximum of five minutes early for the appointment. Remember that Congress works for you. Don’t discuss politics, since the political world is separate from the government (i.e. official) world. Note that failing to make the right impression could result in a “misdirected constituent request”.
Optional Breakout Session – NARFE PAC Leader Training (Ross Apter): Mr. Apter reviewed the objectives and goals of the PAC and emphasized the importance of sustainers. The leader’s role is to educate members. PAC is a separate fund from other income. Leaders need to explain why the PAC is important, how it works, and how it affects the NARFE mission (most important). Need to be proactive in soliciting contributions (i.e. ask for these). Collect and mail fund contributions and issue the newly designed PAC pins as appropriate. Recommendations for contributions are a big factor. The Recommendation process gives members a say in the use of PAC funds. Solicitation factors are: support for NARFE, relationships, the federation recommendation, influence of the legislator, competitiveness of the race, and the overall PAC budget. New candidates have no voting record, so the NARFE candidate questionnaire is required. Local fundraisers are important. What to do at the event: research member, pick issues, elevator speech, pick moment, don’t forget staffers; Share information: contribution/distribution, answer questions, report on fundraiser; new PAC logo; PAC FAQ sheet; collection form, contribution form. Contribution checks are to be made payable to NARFE PAC, and can be accepted from members only. Wear your PAC pin. It is okay to mention NARFE PAC at fundraising event (only). There is to be no quid pro quo for official actions! There are only a couple of state PACs, which have no national management. There is a two-week benchmark for solicitation turnaround.
Tuesday, 12 March – Morning Plenary: The chairwoman of the FMA introduced herself and made general remarks. Jessica Klement then made remarks regarding common issues and concerns.
Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA): Expressed support for NARFE and acknowledged NARFE support for benefits. He asked: “why is Trump mad at you?” He acknowledged the need for business capital investment. In the present administration, feds are denigrated. He acknowledged feds for showing up to work without pay during the shutdown. Feds need parity with military pay. The President budget targets feds most of all, but it is “dead-on-arrival”. The president clearly has distain for feds, but we are better than this. Contractors are also affected and President Trump has a reputation of “stiffing” contractors. The so-called “Stop Stupidity Act” would withhold pay for Congress and White House members and their staffs during a shutdown. There is currently too much emphasis on short-term returns. We have the monetary capital, but not enough trained people. Tax laws should favor people (i.e. training) as well as production of goods and we must invest at least as much in “human capital” as for goods. He expressed his thanks and urged feds to keep watching the news (“don’t turn the TV off”). Q/A: Need to keep government work attractive and need to improve transition from military to civilian life. Contractors tend to “wait
out” transients. There has been a 20% decline in human capital over the last 10 years. There needs to be benefits for anyone who works. Feds need recognition by leadership and keep promises to workers.
Sen. James Lankford (R-OK): The senator gave a short prerecorded address by video. He is a member of the Committee for Federal Workforce. He thanked feds for staying in to work without pay during the shutdown. He favors legislation to hold feds harmless during a possible shutdown. This legislation is in the works and is bipartisan. Government should keep its benefits promises to feds, accelerate hiring, expedite security clearances, and streamline retirement.
Panel Question and Answer Session: There needs to be more advertising for NARFE. This presents a challenge for the chapters. We are now marketing the NARFE brand with a changed look for the 21st Century. The focus is to be on new (younger) membership. The Advocacy Department is now working with government executive agencies. The President’s new budget proposal includes: postal reform, COLAs, and WEP reform. The panel raised the possibility of holding a LEGcon each year (i.e. annually). This could mean much change from the present format. Attendees must be focused and prepared. They should consider local district office follow-up. The President’s budget contains many of the same proposals as last year, of which the COLA issue is probably the biggest. Personal stories help considerably to sell the NARFE narrative.
Breakout 3 – Mock Meetings: Three NARFE staff members did several mock (staged) interviews to illustrate the best ways to approach Congressional legislators and their staffs during the “Hill Day” on Wednesday. They recommended that members discuss overall policies, and not particular cases. Discuss NARFE top two issues (i.e. benefits and COLAs and Postal Reform), give legislators and staffers information in advance, and know what (if anything) the legislator has done for NARFE.
Breakout 4 – Making the Most of Hill Day (J. Klement): Tailor your message and “know before you go” (see NARFE checklist). The Oversight Committee is big for NARFE. The Appropriations Committee handles federal pay raises. The Ways and Means Committee addresses Medicare (Parts A and B). Tailor your meeting to the committee (if applicable). There is now much political ideology, polarization, and gerrymandering (which accounts for so few purple districts). There are several types of Caucuses: Progressive, New Dems, Main Street (and the Tuesday Group), and the Freedom Caucus. You’re your legislator committee assignments and voting record. Know your “state sheet”, and avoid politics. One can perhaps bring up a fundraiser conversation, but don’t mention fundraiser itself. Do “homework” on the legislator. What bills did they cosponsor? Have they attended a NARFE function? Check legislator biographies to see if they have done federal service. It is good to make points with the legislator, or staffer, and try not to leave without an “ask”. There is now some sympathy in the country for feds due to the shutdown. “Storytelling” should include a personal touch and focus on NARFE issues. “Read” your audience. A “don’t know” implies getting back with an answer and establishes rapport with staff. Ask for a picture photo only if meeting directly with Congress members. Q/A: What to ask for a sympathetic legislator? Emphasize fed contributions to debt reduction. There is currently consideration to roll the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) over into the General Services Administration (GSA). There is a Problem Solver Caucus which is bipartisan. There are also now 63 pieces of legislation on shutdown, which so far are not going anywhere.
Afternoon Plenary: Kathy Hensley (NARFE Secretary/Treasurer) introduced Mr. David Lusk (NARFE Grassroots and Advocacy). He stated that interests-based advocacy is the key to success. The average time to pass legislation is now about seven years. There are now over 89 freshman legislators (the House of Representatives expanded to 435 in 1913). The effectiveness of email has been lessened by the increase in volume. There has been no congressional staff increase since 1970 and there is now an average of about 125 meetings per week. Especially with “change” elections there is a knowledge gap due to staff turnover. The best success goes to organizations that maintain contact and help to educate politicians. Advocacy organizations do have an impact. Voice-over-time means tracking what is going on in the home districts. The relationship should be that the legislator comes to citizen. Research shows that the citizen carries about five times more weight than a lobbyist. The Advocacy program uses diverse tactics to get Congress to listen, but this takes time. To get even one legislator to support the NARFE position on an issue is significant. Face-to-face is 34 times more effective than email. Use fact sheets, as well as memorable experiences, to support your story. There are two types of constituents: those who give their opinions and those who show interest. The latter is most important. Framing of interest leads to success and increases the chance of persuasion. Emphasize “quality over quantity” and interest-based advocacy. Know who you are talking to. Q/A: none asked
Ms. Hensley made closing remarks for the conference and discussed the logistics for Hill Day. Wednesday, 13 March – Congressional Capitol Hill Day: This event consisted primarily of visits to legislator offices on both the House and Senate sides. The visits were preceded by a constituent coffee, cosponsored by Nevada senators Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen (both Democrats), to which I had been formally invited. There were over one hundred participants and both senators spoke of the coming challenges to the state of Nevada and their optimism for the future.
I was able to arrange appointments to visit the offices of both senators and three of the four House delegates: Dina Titus (District 1), Mark Amodei (District 2), and Susie Lee (District 3). A brief summary of the visits to each follows. In each case, I spoke with a Congressional legislative assistant (the names are given in parentheses after the legislator name below).
Rosen (Ms. Bryn McDonough): In this meeting, I had the good fortune to be accompanied and supported by NARFE HQ advocates Mr. Alan Lopatin (Legislative Counsel) and Mr. John Hatton (Director of Legislation and Policy). We were able to discuss a number of issues concerning federal employees and retirees, including such issues as the proposed spending freeze for 2020, the GAO audit, and potential hiring problems for new federal employees due to decreasing incentives for federal workers. The new Postal Reform Bill, which would make Medicare Part B mandatory for Postal employees and retirees, has not yet been introduced. Ms. McDonough expressed interest in obtaining more Nevada-specific data on federal employees and retirees, if available.
Cortez Masto (Mr. J. T. Creedon): I introduced myself as a federal retiree with over 35 years of service, all with the Department of Defense (DoD). I expressed our concerns about the recently published Presidential Budget for 2020 and its possible effects on federal employee and retiree benefits. In particular, I expressed concern that our share of coverage under the Federal Employees Health Benefits Plan (FEHB) could be reduced. Mr. Creedon expressed his interest in obtaining specific statistics on increases in FEHB costs over time, which the senator could use to support the NARFE case. I also explained the difference in the Consumer Price Index for Wage Earners (CPI-W) method to compute COLAs, as now used for active employees, as opposed to the proposed Elderly (CPI-E) method that better reflects the needs of retirees. I also expressed our concern about the precedent of mandating Medicare Part B for Postal employees and retirees and the dangerous precedent that this would set. Mr. Creedon seemed to be quite curious about NARFE, and ready to provide assistance. He also expressed his appreciation for the work that the NARFE Headquarters staff does in the area of advocacy.
Titus (Ms. Christine Godinez): Due to schedule constraints, I had to hold a hallway meeting with the legislative assistant. I did a quick summary of my federal employment background to emphasize its importance and explained our concerns about the new president-proposed budget. I also briefly discussed the proposed Postal Reform Bill and its provision for mandatory Medicare enrollment and our opposition to this. During our meeting, I was able to briefly meet Congresswoman Titus who introduced herself. She expressed her support for the federal community and offered to take part in any local community functions that NARFE might sponsor in or around her home district.
Amodei (Mr. Ken Brooke): I introduced myself and gave a brief summary of my federal work experience, and expressed my concerns about possible reductions in federal benefits due to the new proposed presidential budget. Mr. Brooke pointed out that funding for federals usually turns out to be significantly above the presidential request as there is usually a Senate plus up of federal benefits. I explained the difference in the CPI-W method to compute COLAs, as now used for active employees, as opposed to the proposed CPI-E method that better reflects the needs of retirees. I explained that the recent government shutdown could have a negative effect on future federal hiring. I also expressed our opposition to privatization of the Postal Service, and our main concern about the precedent of mandating Medicare Part B for Postal employees and retirees.
Lee (Mr. Nabeel Alam): Due to scheduling, we had a brief meeting during which I was able to express NARFE concerns about the President’s budget. I reviewed my federal career, in brief, and emphasized the concerns that federal employees and retirees about the potential reduction in federal retirement benefits, particularly with the proposed Postal Reform bill. I also emphasized the need to maintain the value of federal pension benefits through increased COLAs.
Also, the NARFE Advocacy Department prepared a four-page state information package, which was well received by all of the legislative assistants. In most cases, they said that these presented new information with which they were not familiar. In general, this shows that the effort to “show the flag of NARFE” on Capitol Hill remains important, even in turbulent times.
The Congressional Hill visits were followed by a reception in the foyer of the Rayburn Building (House side), which featured remarks by House members of Congress.