Senate Republicans recently threw the hat into the ring and proposed a federal pay freeze for civilian employees in 2021.
They included the proposal in one of a dozen appropriations bills, which they released last week.
This is the first time a formal pay freeze proposal has been on the table this year, even if it seems like it’s been part of the conversation for much longer.
Federal employee groups, most of whom spent the last 11 months lobbying Congress for something much higher, were not thrilled.
The American Federation of Government Employees said Senate Republicans were trying to “outdo” President Donald Trump.
The Federal Managers Association said it was a disappointing payout for employees’ hard work during a pandemic.
The timing of this move is an interesting one, considering senators introduced the appropriations bills for a fiscal year that was already 51 days old. The Senate hasn’t marked up a single appropriations bill this year and barely held any of the usual hearings that typify the annual process.
Yet here they are, four weeks before the next government shutdown deadline.
Leaders on the Senate Appropriations Committee have said the recently-released bills are meant to help the two chambers reconcile their differences so lawmakers can settle on a final omnibus spending package.
Again, the current continuing resolution expires Dec. 11.
The House didn’t include a pay proposal for federal employees, meaning they’ve deferred to the president’s recommendation. I’ll leave it to you to determine how wise that decision is.
Trump in February proposed a 1% across-the-board federal pay raise for civilian employees. No locality adjustment. He notified Congress of his intentions way earlier than usual, before a pandemic sent the economy crashing.
So what’s next? There are a few options.
Congressional leaders could negotiate and adopt the Senate’s proposal —a federal pay freeze — and include it in a final omnibus spending package. Once it’s signed into law, the president would have to issue an executive order making it official. Considering the administration’s past pay freeze proposals, it’s difficult to imagine the White House putting up much of a stink.
On the other hand, congressional leaders could negotiate and choose the House proposal: silence. Silence isn’t necessarily reassuring, because it essentially allows the president to do what he chooses on the matter of federal pay. And yes, the president can change his mind.
Former President Barack Obama did so in 2016, when he issued a bit of a parting gift to federal employees on his way out of the White House. Feds were on track for a 1.6% pay raise in November 2016. A month later, Obama upped the raise to 2.1%.
Trump has also been known to change his mind on federal pay. He did so last year for the 2020 raise, when he reversed course and told Congress he’d give feds a 2.6% raise instead of a pay freeze. Congress tacked on an additional 0.5% in average locality pay adjustments later on, bringing the 2020 average to 3.1%.
So yes, I’ll say it: The president may have proposed a 1% federal pay raise in February, but there’s nothing stopping him from changing his mind and issuing a late-December pay freeze order. Pessimists are already planning for it.
This option isn’t lost on some federal employee groups. They’re especially disappointed the House didn’t offer a more aggressive pay proposal but instead chose to defer to the president’s months-old recommendation.
There’s a third option that’s worth mentioning, but it doesn’t seem likely. Congressional leaders could throw out their previous proposals altogether and write a federal pay raise into the budget package. Considering the current options are either zero or a 1% bump, it’s difficult to imagine lawmakers going much higher, even as some fed-friendly House Democrats have pushed for civilian pay parity with the military.
Servicemembers are on track for a 3% pay raise in 2021.
It’s only fair to mention a fourth option. In the spirit of giving, President Trump could reverse course yet again and issue feds a still higher pay raise for 2021. I mention it only because it’s possible, not because it’s likely.
But we’ve been surprised before.
If — and there’s still an “if” at this point — pay is frozen in 2021, no one is blameless this time. There’s plenty of finger-pointing to go around.
Nearly Useless Factoid
Oregon State University and the University of Oregon have one of the oldest football rivalries in the nation, dating back to 1894. Every year they compete for a Platypus trophy, because their mascots are a beaver and a duck, respectively.