Twenty years ago, on September 25, 1995, my first column appeared in the Federal Times. I’d like to share the opening words with you because my goal – and the paper’s – haven’t changed since then.
There’s an old saying: “In the private sector you can do whatever you want unless there is a law that says you can’t. In the federal government you can’t do anything unless there’s a law that says you can.”
In reality, the government is in a double bind because there are laws that say it can do some things and others that say that it can’t.
The number of each is legion, and from most of them flow regulations, administrative accommodations and court decisions that further complicate our lives.
As a result, employees, retirees and their survivors are often the victims of unpleasant surprises in the areas of retirement, health benefits and life insurance.
In future columns we will explore these “gotchas” and, where possible, find ways for you to avoid them. Where they cannot be avoided, we will discuss how you can deal with them in a fully informed way.
Back when I was working for the federal government, I left one job and moved to another. Years later I returned to the first job. After I arrived, I jokingly said to the man I was replacing, “When I left we were working on five projects,” which I then named. “Well,” he said, “you’ll feel very much at home because we’re still working on the same five!”
That’s how I feel when looking back over the topics that have needed to be revisited annually, or even more frequently. In the newspaper trade these are referred to as “evergreens.” It means that no matter how often you write about them, there’s always a new audience that needs to be told for the first time and a seasoned one that needs to be reminded. Among these are the age and service requirements to retire on an immediate annuity, a postponed annuity or a deferred annuity, the windfall elimination provision, the government pension offset, deposits to get credit for active duty service in the armed forces, redeposits to get credit for service when you’ve returned to the government after having received a refund of your retirement contributions, health and life insurance coverage, “Catch-62,” voluntary contributions for CSRS employees… you can fill in the rest.
What has changed in the last 20 years is the way I get ideas for future columns. I still read the papers, watch the news, troll the government’s web sites, tap into my sources, etc. However, my best source of ideas is you, my readers, and your questions. In the beginning, those questions came by snail mail. Then the internet arrived and with it the Federal Times’ Ask the Experts website where you can e-mail me a question at firstname.lastname@example.org. Over the years, what was once a trickle of inquiries has grown to the point that I’m now answering an average of 80 questions a month.
Yes, it’s hard work – but it’s satisfying to provide answers to readers in what now passes for real time. As those questions accumulate, they clearly show which way the wind is blowing. In this business, there’s nothing a writer likes better than to be pointed in the direction where he can be of greatest service to the largest number of readers.
I’d like to close these reflections with the words I used to end that first column because they are as true today as they were then. I began with a quote from Francis Bacon, who lived from 1561 to 1626. He said, “knowledge is power.” Then I went on to say…
Clearly you are in the best position to protect your rights when you are fully informed about them.
When you know what problems you may face in the future, and you know how to deal with them effectively, you are like a commuter who has learned to avoid traffic jams by listening to the radio.
So stay tuned. On the retirement and insurance highway, I will try to be your rush-hour traffic reporter.