Joe Davidson
Joe Davidson
Columnist

GOP wants quick vote on bill to extend freeze on basic federal pay rates

It’s not surprising that House Republicans are continuing their assault on federal employee compensation. But Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s decision to quickly call for a vote on a new bill shows just how strong their determination is to hold down federal pay.

Apparently, even a tiny raise after a two-year-plus freeze is too much.

Joe Davidson

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. Davidson previously was an assistant city editor at The Washington Post and a Washington and foreign correspondent with The Wall Street Journal, where he covered federal agencies and political campaigns.

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No sooner had Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) and 28 co-sponsors introduced H.R. 273 on Wednesday than Cantor (R-Va.) announced a vote for next week. The measure would extend the freeze on basic pay rates until the end of the year.

“At a time when we should be focused on helping families get on solid financial footing, members of Congress, the vice president, Cabinet secretaries and federal employees don’t need a raise,” Cantor said. “This across-the-board pay hike issued by President Obama through executive order will cost hardworking taxpayers $11 billion. . . . We simply can’t afford it.”

In December, Obama said federal employees would get a 0.5 percent pay raise after a temporary funding measure expires in March. But that order can be trumped by congressional action.

“We simply cannot afford this unnecessary and unilateral action by the President,” DeSantis said. The congressman also plans to co-sponsor “No Budget, No Pay” legislation, which his office said would prevent lawmakers from being paid if they don’t pass a budget.

“Just like American families, the federal government needs to tighten its belt,” his news release added.

With this as his first bill, DeSantis, a freshman, makes a name at the expense of federal workers. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, appointed DeSantis to a seat on the federal workforce subcommittee.

“My actions this week are just the first steps in bringing accountability, reduced spending and conservative change to Washington,” DeSantis said.

Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, called his action “a continuation of the anti-federal-worker line of attack that became an all-too-familiar staple of the 112th Congress, particularly in the House. More than two dozen bills were introduced during that two-year period aimed at federal pay, benefits and rights.”

Fortunately for federal workers, the Senate is unlikely to approve the DeSantis bill, at least as standalone legislation. Yet if a measure extending the freeze, which began two years ago this month, were part of a deficit-reduction package that was otherwise acceptable to Democrats, it might be hard for them to reject it. But Democrats don’t like the idea.

“The hardworking men and women who make up the federal workforce have made a substantial sacrifice over the past two years to help bring down the deficit,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). “Efforts by House Republicans to constantly use federal employees as a piggy bank — especially when the vast majority of their caucus refuses to ask millionaires to contribute more to reducing our deficit — are unconscionable. We cannot keep asking them to contribute more than their fair share as we work to put our fiscal house in order.”

Already, previously approved hits on federal compensation amount to $103 billion over 10 years.

Not all Republicans see dollar signs when looking at the federal workforce. “I’m voting no and I’m speaking against it,” said Rep. Frank Wolf (Va.).

Citing the work of federal employees including FBI agents, slain U.S. ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens, cancer researchers and the CIA officers who found Osama bin Laden, Wolf said, “It is a bad idea.”

Added Rep. Rob Wittman, another Virginia Republican: “Singling out federal employee salaries is not the answer to this nation’s spending problems.”

Extending the freeze is one way to hold down federal pay. Cutting down on hours and bodies is another. That’s a real possibility.

In a Monday memo, Jeffrey D. Zients, Office of Management and Budget deputy director for management, told agencies to prepare for $85 billion in possible across-the-board reductions, known as sequestration, to take effect March 1.

Perparing means the agencies should “identify the most appropriate means to reduce civilian workforce costs where necessary — this may include imposing hiring freezes, releasing temporary employees or not renewing term or contract hires, authorizing voluntary separation incentives and voluntary early retirements, or implementing administrative furloughs.”

The administration gets points from some quarters for issuing guidance weeks before the deadline, unlike it did when the government faced a possible shutdown in 2011.

“While we are happy that they are being proactive in getting us that information, it has, as you can imagine, also caused considerable anxiety among federal workers,” said Matt Biggs, legislative director of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers.

Proactive is good, even if the message isn’t. The American Federation of Government Employees wants the OMB to “revise drastically its guidance to agencies” to put more of the budget burden on contractors.

“Contractors are more costly and numerous than federal employees, yet they are merely subjected to the possibility of cuts,” said AFGE President J. David Cox Sr. “Meanwhile, OMB suggests to agencies a whole panoply of actual cuts to the federal workforce.”

The OMB didn’t respond to a request for comment on that.

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