Kaufman warns of federal workers' 'pent up demand' to retire
Outgoing Sen. Ted Kaufman (D-Del.) warned Wednesday that lawmakers need to act soon to address a delayed, but impending government brain drain as tens of thousands of experienced federal workers prepare to retire in the coming years as the economy improves.
Kaufman has served as the temporary successor to Vice President Joe Biden since last year after previously serving as his chief of staff. Kaufman gave 100 Senate floor speeches touting the work of rank and file federal workers and Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) has promised to continue the tradition.
Kaufman spent much of his Senate tenure focused on fiscal issues, financial regulatory reform and spoke Wednesday about his work on federal personnel issues:
You've focused primarily on financial reform, taxes, health-care and federal worker issues. Have you seen meaningful policy change in the last 18 months regarding the federal workforce?
When you look at what this administration has had to deal with, what this Congress has had to deal with, we've passed more legislation than any Congress since FDR: War in Iraq, War in Afghanistan, two Supreme Court nominees, health care. I've been here since 1973, and I've never seen a Congress that's done half of what this one did. ...
I feel that this is not the time to make progress. Do we have to make progress? Absolutely. ... We can't keep pushing this thing off into the future.
What's the most important piece of legislation your colleagues need to deal with in the near future?
Oh, they have to deal with this retirement issue.
But is it really happening? People were talking about 10,000 federal workers packing up and leaving, and it hasn't happened.
No. The thing that's amazing to me is people don't look at a lot of these issues in context. ... This is not a time if I'm a federal worker I'm going to retire. My 401(k) probably took a big hit. My investments hit a rock. ... That's all gone. The fact that 10,000 people who we forecasted to retire didn't retire is almost a "duh." Who's going to go out and retire right now?
What we have is what's known as a pent up demand to retire. So at some point, instead of 10,000 retiring in one year, you'll have 40,000 retire in six months. That's what will happen, trust me, if this economy comes back and gets well and people have options. I'm not talking about options and taking a new job, I'm talking about just retiring. And they'll probably still have to have a second job, because the federal pension isn't going to cover it.
Is the government equipped to fill 40,000 jobs in six months?
No, no! And not the 40,000 jobs we're going to lose. This is my favorite subject, STEM: Science, technology, engineering and math. Think of the number of engineers and scientists that are getting ready to retire from the federal government with nobody to one to take their place in the private sector or the public sector. And this is going to be a gravy train, because there are so many scientists and engineers out of work who with some retraining can come back and do it. But when we use up those folks, where are we going to find the people to do it?
So what does the government need to do?
The President of the United States needs to say we're going to set up a conference on federal employees and what do we need to do to maintain federal employees. You're going to need to get some of the best minds in the country get together and plot out how this is going to work. you've got to start thinking about telework and getting all the technology, how can we increase the productivity of the federal employee? Who are the departments that need it?
You've got to make it -- in a world where there are so many things going on -- you have to make it a high priority.
You've been here for almost 24 years as a Senate chief of staff and senator. As cliché as it sounds, what's the biggest change you've seen?
The biggest change in the Senate as an institution is that freshmen senators were neither seen nor heard. It's dramatic.
And everything revolved around your committee. You had much fewer committee assignments. Everybody still had plenty to do. It's one of my pet peeves. I went from being on two committees for 14 months to four and I never came to work and never had enough to do.
We spend an hour every week just trying to figure out what we're going to do with committee meetings. Just the meetings, not the substance.
One of your former colleagues here, Pete Rouse, is now White House Chief of Staff. Any thoughts on his ascension?
Pete's a pro. There's a whole group of former chiefs of staff who are by and large a pretty qualified group of people by any measure. Pete was not, like me, just a one-trick pony who worked for one senator, he worked for several. Pete's the kind of guy who can do just about anything.
Has the role of Senate chief of staff changed since you first arrived?
When I was coming up, the biggest difference was that a lot of the southern Senators had a chief of staff who came with you, they stayed, 25, 35 years. Clearly there's a bigger turnover now in chiefs of staff.
It's like being married. It's chemistry. You've got to have a chief of staff that you just really enjoy being around. Somebody who you can talk about things that you can't talk to anybody else about, except your spouse. That's the way this job is. There has to be chemistry to make it work.
Have you seen Christine O'Donnell's new TV ad? Can she win?
No, I haven't seen it.
She says she has a lot of money and she's going up on TV. If she has the money she says she has, that's a big buy in Delaware. Do I think Chris Coons is going to win? Absolutely. I think Chris will win and be a great senator.
Will you be here to hand over the keys to whoever wins regardless?
Oh yeah, the Senate is the Senate. When the people of Delaware speak, that's it.
(Note: This interview has been edited for length.)
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| October 6, 2010; 12:40 PM ET
Categories: Congress, Workplace Issues
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