In the wake of the adoption of a federal budget in December that did no harm to federal workers, unlike previous congressional plans, one veteran of legislative battles sees reason for optimism.
"I think 2016 has the potential to be a better year for federal employees," said National Federation of Federal Employees President William Dougan.
That's not the kind of statement federal labor leaders had reason to make in recent years.
"With the Obama administration entering its final full year, we might see the White House do more for the federal employees that have made big sacrifices in recent years in the name of deficit reduction. The economy has improved steadily under President Obama's administration, and that could mean a better pay adjustment for federal employees," he added, perhaps more with hope than optimism.
But don't uncork the champagne yet, warns U.S. Rep. Gerald Connolly, a Democrat whose Northern Virginia district is home to many federal employees and contractors. "Being optimistic with this Congress," he said, "can be very dangerous."
No doubt. Yet there is less attention to playing defense for feds now and more talk about positive action for the workforce.
Some of those words come from a man known as a leader of the conservative caucus in the House. Many know Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., as a founder of the hard-core House Freedom Caucus. He was blamed for instigating the 16-day partial government shutdown in 2013. He was a force in the successful drive to run John Boehner from the speaker's office.
But he is also chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees the federal workforce. When he speaks in that role, he doesn't sound like a hardheaded conservative, though conservative he certainly is.
"We've got to trust our federal workforce," he said during an interview, "to make the best decisions, not only for themselves but for the United States government."
As chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on government operations, Meadows visited six federal agencies and met with their employees last year. He plans to double that this year.
Those visits "showed me the best and the worst of what we do. I've laughed and I've cried in some of those meetings when I've heard the stories. I mean that literally. So, it has changed me to listen to our federal workforce."
Part of the problem, he added, is that conservatives see government's inefficiencies, but "we don't empower the people that are closest to the problem to fix the problem." Federal employees, Meadows said, "can fix a bureaucracy that in certain ways has gotten out of control."
If he has one "overarching goal" for federal employees, "it is to make sure that their voice is heard in 2016 and well beyond when Mark Meadows is no longer in Congress."
Meadows thinks reforming the Postal Service can be accomplished this year, and he would like to start a meaningful discussion on civil service reform, although he doesn't expect legislation on that to be approved until after the next election. Reform elements, he said, might include making federal employees' compensation commensurate with their duties, which could mean raises for some, and addressing poor performers, which could mean quicker discipline and firings for others. He also wants to take a close look at the use of contractors. He doesn't say there are too many, as union leaders have, but he questions the focus on big government without also looking at that force.
There are points upon which he and Connolly, a proud progressive and the top Democrat on the subcommittee, might agree. Protecting federal employees from the kind of cyberattack that has exposed the personal information of more than 20 million staffers, retirees, applicants and family members is on that list. These political opposites have a good working relationship, but it won't lead to a "Kumbaya" feeling on all issues affecting federal staffers.
For Connolly, the 1.3 percent pay raise for feds this year is not enough. "I believe the federal pay raise should have been three times what it was," he said. That remains a key issue for Connolly, but don't expect the Freedom Caucus to join that call.
For too many on Capitol Hill, civil service reform means slashing due process rights for employees accused of misconduct. Connolly was among Democrats and Republicans who voted for a law doing that to senior executives in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
That was a special case involving the life and death of veterans, Connolly argued during an interview. He forcefully opposes efforts to expand such measures to other agencies, as some of his colleagues have suggested. Promising to be "very vigilant" against more suspension of workforce protections, he said the VA measure "must not be . . .the camel's nose under the tent."
Too late for that. Feds can expect more attacks on due process rights.
Although, Connolly said, feds can breathe a sigh of relief as 2016 begins, he issued this word of caution to federal employees: "We need to be on our guard."