Looking Back with SEA’s First President

G. Jerry Shaw, SEA’s first President (1980-1982) and General Counsel (1983-2003), was asked to respond to several topics regarding his role in SEA’s history. His recollections follow.  From the September 2010 issue of ACTION.

SEA’s Founding

Beginning in 1974, the then Super Grade (SG) employees (predecessors of the SESers) did not receive a pay raise for 5 years. The politics on the Hill were much like they are now, namely, members of Congress afraid to accept any pay raises for themselves. Since the SG employees were capped at the congressional pay rate, they received no raises either. By 1978, all employees at GS-14, GS-15 and SG levels were paid the same. Since it was a period of high inflation, a substantial number of these employees who had retired from 1974 on were receiving more from their annuities than they would have made continuing to work for the government.

The result was that all senior employees who could retire did so the first day they were eligible. In addition, the IRS, and some other agencies had policies that required that SG employees had to be reassigned every two years or so (in the case of IRS, to insure the integrity of the federal tax system). Therefore, the SG employees had to move their families every few years and sell their current homes and buy others at the new locations. Since inflation was so bad, and housing prices were escalating, SG employees could not get buyers for their current homes and could not afford to buy or rent elsewhere. If they did do so, they would wind up having to make payments on their old homes, pay their own costs of moving, and make mortgage or rent payments at their new assignments. There was no such thing as ‘relocation expenses,” so they even had to pay for most of their furniture being moved.

The result was that many SG’s had to leave their families at their former residences and rent a one bedroom place for sometimes 2 or more years at their new destinations. Some were forced into bankruptcy and left federal service. A substantial number got divorces because their wives and kids could not stand the near poverty living, the extensive periods of being apart, and the uncertainty of the future. It was no fun, and many SG’s bailed. Those that stayed on were doing so just until they got their 55/30 or 50/20 if they could get their agencies to make their moves “involuntary” and let them out early. Even this didn’t work often, because there were always some employees who would complain of a “conspiracy” and, once that happened, the agencies couldn’t cooperate.

During the Clinton administration, Civil Service Commission Director Scotty Campbell convened a number of SG’s and asked them to develop a solution. Thus, the Civil Service Reform Act bill came about. Scotty and others worked hard to get the legislation passed and were successful.

The great news was that the new SES was created by the Act, which promised a pay raise, with 6 different position ranks (ES 1-6), and increasing pay as one went up the ranks. Best of all were the promises of performance awards and Presidential Rank awards, with dollar amounts which were equivalent to 25% of salary for Meritorious awards and 40% for Distinguished awards.

Therefore, there were great expectations throughout the Super Grade ranks. The icing on the cupcake was transfer into the new SES system was voluntary. Some SG’s didn’t opt in, but 95% did because Scotty Campbell put together a traveling dog and pony show and literally “sold” the new system to SGs, assuring all that the SES would be great, their pay would go up substantially, there would be dollar-defined Presidential Rank Awards, and also incentive awards of up to 20% of base pay paid to “up to” 50% of all SESers each year. In fact, the Civil Service Reform Act so provided. What was to lose? A new world had begun.

So everyone busted their tails to qualify for these wonderful pay and benefits right up until the end of the first year the SES was in place. Two agencies – SBA and NASA -- took the statute seriously and paid bonuses to 50% of their Senior Executives. However, following the bonus pay-outs, a member of Congress took the floor, denounced the lavish payments to bureaucrats, and proposed a 25% limitation on the number of bonuses that could be granted by any agency, a limitation which subsequently passed Congress as part of an appropriations bill. Then, bonuses were limited to 20% of the corps the following year. Even worse, OPM issued guidelines that, in large agencies, no more than 5% should receive 20% of base pay, no more than 10% in total should receive 17-20%, and no more than 25% in total should receive even 12-20%.

So, you can understand that the roof went off. Everyone felt betrayed by Congress and the Administration. They were very correct. A group of 6 or so SES employees from the IRS asked for a meeting with Scotty Campbell which we got. And we vented! Director Campbell empathized a great deal, but when asked what he and the Administration would do to change the law back to its original purpose, he stated that neither he nor the Administration could do anything because it was not in their interest to do so and not politically prudent.

(I confess I have always wondered how much the federal employee unions had to do with this cap. I think they saw others getting something that they didn’t, they couldn’t get it themselves, and so they worked very hard to kill it for us. I think this is what Scotty was telling us when he said it was not politically feasible for the Admin to help. It is interesting that, at the same time all the SG and then the SES were capped, all the employees G-13 and below had been receiving annual increases of 3-7%, which were high due to inflation.)

When asked what we should do, he stated that the only thing we could do was to form an Association and get up on the Hill and work it out ourselves! Now that was a bombshell, and it took us a few hours after the meeting to grasp the concept. It happened that the IRS was to have their annual all-SES meeting in DC the next week or so. Ted Kern, the IRS District Director in Baltimore, called me and several other IRS SESers to an after-hours meeting while they were in town. About 40-50 attended, and we talked about an association. Ted had called me before the meeting and asked me to draft Articles of Incorporation for a non-profit group, which I did. Nearly everyone at the IRS meeting wanted to do something, but didn’t know what to do. We left that meeting thinking great thoughts but without a real outline going forward.

After dinner two nights later, Ted Kern and several others knocked on my door at home. They asked me to leave the IRS to be the first President of SEA. I was overwhelmed, because I had no idea how could I do this since I had no income other than from the IRS and had a wife and 2 kids, as well as 2 foster kids. After the meeting, my wife encouraged me to take the job, and promised to work with me during the days ahead. Together we started something brand new, and Barbara has ever since been known as the “Mother of SEA”.

I accepted the job, but only if the IRS would give me a six month leave of absence without pay. Our hope was that we would be able to get enough SESers to join and pay dues to match my federal pay for 6 months. Together we did that. We got hundreds of application forms and dues payments in the first couple of weeks, with every one saying “It’s about time someone did this.”

Barb and I were given two desks, 12 phones and some paper and pencils to start with. Our headquarters was in an IRS warehouse where blank taxpayer forms were stored. No outside views, a few lights, and a lot of sweat and worry. But we started calling people, setting up meetings on the Hill and with key SESers at other agencies.

Why IRS produced the founders

First, except for the IRS Commissioner and the IRS Chief Counsel, there were no other political appointees in an agency of over 100,000 employees. The career Deputy Commissioner of IRS talked with both of them, explained the problem, informed them of my leave of absence, explained the need for results if there were to be any IRS career execs left to do the work, and they said: “OK. Let us know when we can help.” And we did, and they did.

IRS was consistently awarded the best managed agency in all of the federal government. The second best was the Social Security Administration. What does this tell you about political appointees? At best there are way too many of them now, and their agencies would probably function better if they got on with their policy formulation and left the career executives to manage.

So the IRS Deputy Director got on the phone and had a conference call with every SESer in the agency. They all joined except one. We then went recruiting agency to agency for a while to raise funds for newsletters other needed resources. My salary was set at what my SES salary had been, and I always got my paycheck on time.
A substantial number of federal execs joined SEA and helped with their dues, support and suggestions. They understood immediately that we all had to work together to make any headway. Some called members of Congress in their districts; some wrote letters to every member of Congress, lobbied on their own, joined in the Lobby Days SEA set up, attended every meeting, did every thing they could, and volunteered their spouses to work in the SEA office. What a joy they all were to work for and with. They would criticize when they needed to, but it was always constructive.

Then there were the others who buried their heads in the ground and hoped and would rather cut off an arm than pay dues for the effort. Of course, they were pleased to take the benefits though they never would contribute anything. I have never understood why they didn’t. After all, we were working for everyone, not just the few. We promised anonymity if they wished, and some still wouldn’t join. It is as true today as it was back then, and for the life of me I will never understand. Some people are just plain miserly.

Our reception on Capitol Hill

It was surprisingly good, given that I knew nothing about Congress or Congressmen. I first turned to my own, Frank Wolf (R-VA). I called for an appointment. He was very nice and also very new. He had lots of sympathy, said he would help, and asked what he could do. I told him I didn’t know, because I had never done it myself. He got a good laugh about that, told me what other members to visit, and then promised to meet again in a couple of days. My next stop was Congressman Steny Hoyer (D-MD); now he knew stuff! Both of he and Rep. Wolf were and are great friends of SEA.

I must have written 25 position papers in the next weeks and visited 35 members of Congress, all of whom were nice, but not very interested. When we started having the SESers and their spouses call the Members and talk to them, things started to loosen up some. But it was a very hard job to be after “equity” when Members of Congress were getting none or very small raises themselves. So, we began to also lobby and talk up in the media the need for pay equity for Congress too. This helped. We regularly met with a group of about 8 Members who had been tasked with doing something about congressional pay. We planned and schemed; over time it worked, and it certainly helped us with our goals.

For anyone interested, lobbying for organizations like SEA - which had nearly no resources, couldn’t make campaign contributions, and had no more than a few hundred members in any district who could vote for or against an incumbent - was nearly impossible. I called it “organized begging.” It was that at the beginning, and it is the same now. It only makes it harder when the ones you are lobbying for are too cheap to pay member dues and only hoped we could get something for them that they put no effort or dollars into. Many discouraging days, I just wanted to quit.

With everything we did, we tried to keep Scotty Campbell and others in the Administration up to speed most of the time, and sometimes they would make suggestions; there was little visible help, though I know many were empathetic.

With all of that, SEA achieved relocation benefits, the last move home provision,home purchase and sale assistance when being geographically reassigned, raising the cap on bonuses (along with pay raises), increasing the amount of Presidential Rank Awards from the $ 10,000 and $ 20,000 to 20 and 35% of salary for the top 5% and 1% of the SES annually, and reimbursement for up to 50% of professional liability insurance premiums. OR With all of that, nonetheless, you can read SEA’s substantial list of accomplishments here. SEA has fought successfully every year to get better pay and benefits for the SES and has succeeded annually in saving the benefits the SES has now. Every year someone in the Admin or Congress tries to cut some SES benefits, but you never see these same attacks on the rank and file. Only SEA has protected SESers and kept the SES a viable system.

It is true that there are still many things to be done to encompass the dream that SG’s had of the SES. But together it can happen, and that means every SES member supporting SEA by paying their dues and participating in the organization. An organization like SEA can only be destroyed by the neglect of people it represents.

Stepping down as President and becoming General Counsel

I did this for a number of reasons, the first being that two years of running SEA, as well as lobbying, became too much for me and my family. I also had many individuals ask me to represent them. I agreed to do so only on the condition that I would be able to maintain my advocacy for SEA on the Hill and with the Administration. They did, and I continued representing SEA until my retirement at the start of 2004.

SEA’s 30th year

I am not surprised that SEA is celebrating its 30th year. It never occurred to me that SEA would go away. First because SEA President Carol Bonosaro was taking over the reins, and would never let it fail and, second, because we always had a distinguished and brilliant group of SESers that served each year on SEA’s Board of Directors. Two of the most distinguished who have remained on the Board (and are always the most active Board members) for many years are Mary Lou Uhlig of EPA and John Euler of DOJ (retired). With people like these on the Board, and Bill Bransford, Esq. serving as General Counsel, advocate and absolute expert on all SES laws and history for the Association and all SESers, it would take a lot of dynamite to kill off SEA.

What we should have done better

From the standpoint of accomplishments, there are many more that have occurred since I retired. As long as the SES corps supports SEA, it will be able to continue its record of accomplishments for the corps.

As far as failures, I know there were some, but thanks to our “guru” Bob Terry (sadly, deceased) who Carol recruited to preside as mediator and facilitator at our annual off-site Board of Directors retreat, the ones we had did not last long. He taught us, encouraged us, led us and, when necessary, criticized us. He was a great man with several PhD’s and had a heart and soul as big as the universe. We all loved him, even when we sometimes didn’t like him, and we know that in Heaven he is looking out for SEA every day. For SEA was as much Bob’s as it was anyone’s. He will not let SEA fail either!

Special memories

When we got the pay cap lifted, the Board threw a party for me and the staff, and they all dug real deep in their pockets to buy me a great set of golf clubs. I was so astonished I couldn’t talk, especially because I knew I could never have afforded them myself. I later found out that the Board called my wife and asked what I wanted. She called a golf shop to ask which were the best golf clubs they had, then called the Board back and told them that only these expensive clubs would do, because they had been my life’s desire. GOOOOOOD wife! The bad part was there was no way even those clubs could make me a better golfer, and they didn’t. I still probably owe those Board members some money back.

I think what I am proudest of is the friends I made and the help that I was given when I was President and General Counsel. I had the help of experts, SESers by the dozens with great ideas, and the ability to help me follow through. I was extremely proud of all the help and encouragement I got from IRS executives. They were wonderful to me, as was the Chief Counsel and Commissioner, and especially Bill Williams, the then Deputy Commissioner. He always took my calls, gave me sage advice, and once sent me a letter about how the manner in which SEA operated and I represented it made him proud. I still have it framed and on my wall.

What I wish I had done differently

Other than being a nicer person at times, I can’t think of anything I wish I had done differently. I got out of bed every morning excited about the day before me, and what we were trying to do. Many helped. When we first started out, I had Ted Kern’s wife Blondell as my secretary on Tuesdays, my wife Barbara on Mondays, and one of the other Board members spouses the rest of the week. Sometimes it was hard to keep track of everything, but I have never seen a more dedicated and disciplined group who would do - and did - every and any kind of job like calling federal agency heads to try to get meetings, writing for the newsletter, printing it and getting the stamps and envelopes and hand-writing addresses to SEA members, to going out for sandwiches, and making deliveries to Members of Congress on the Hill. There was no “Not in my job description” at SEA because there was too much to do, and no one getting paid to do it. What a wonderful inspiration it was for them and many other SES spouses who would come in and work when they could to get mailings out, make and take calls, and typing. This kind of inspiration kept me and all who knew SEA proud of what we did, and the unselfish way we did it.

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