Federal pay-freeze extension to three years all but a done deal with Senate bill

Joe Davidson
Columnist March 12, 2013

Just when the walloping of federal workers seemed to have reached a peak — BAM! — here comes an unexpected blow from the left.

At almost the same time, the workers were the target of additional, albeit not surprising, hits from the right.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

A temporary funding measure, released by Sen. Barbara Mikulski, chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, includes an extension of the basic federal pay -rate freeze to three years, something federal employee organizations and their Democratic allies in Congress have vigorously fought.

Just last week, Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat with a strong history of supporting the federal workforce, told the Federal Diary, “I’ll be working my earrings off to fight the extension of the federal pay freeze included in the House-passed continuing resolution.”

Precisely because it is in the bill passed largely by House Republicans, federal employees see no reason for the extension to be in a bill promoted by Senate Democrats, although the Senate measure is bipartisan.

“This is not a happy day for me, and it is not a happy day for the millions of people who work diligently for the federal government,” Mikulski told the Senate on Tuesday, her tone subdued.

“I think this is a terrible mistake,” she added. She believed she had no choice but to make a deal with the Republicans.

“Reluctantly,” she said to the workforce, “the way I serve you is to make sure there is no government shutdown.”

Mikulski is a sincere fighter for feds. But they can’t take her good thoughts to the bank. Once again, the workforce is being made to pay, literally, for decisions made by the elected group of federal employees whose competence pales in comparison with those who were merely hired.

With the Senate and the House each including the freeze extension in their spending measures, it is essentially a done deal. Federal employees can kiss a promised 0.5 percent pay raise goodbye.

“We are fed up with furloughs. We are fed up with frozen salaries,” Joseph A. Beaudoin, president of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association (NARFE), said at a Capitol Hill rally.

“It’s got to stop somewhere. Why can’t it stop today?”

Because Congress won’t stop it.

In addition to going without a little increase in their checks next month, workers also will begin taking unpaid furlough in April, which for some will amount to a pay cut of up to 20 percent through the end of the fiscal year in September.

“We’ve already sacrificed,” said Tim Gartner, a 29-year Defense Department retiree who worked at the former Newark Air Force Base in Ohio. He and his wife, Sandy, were among the NARFE members who rallied in support of the workforce.

“We want to do our share to balance this budget,” he added. “And we’re willing to do that. We just don’t want to be the scapegoats.”

While the freeze extension in the Senate legislation is symbolically a shock for federal workers, including the freeze in the House resolution last week was a good indication it would become law, even if Democrats in the Senate and the White House had opposed it. With Republicans insisting on the continued freeze, Democrats saw little option but to cave in the name of a larger good, in this case averting a shutdown.

“I’m deeply disappointed the Senate bill doesn’t include a much-deserved and long-awaited cost of living adjustment for federal employees,” Mikulski said in a statement. “For too long, deficit reduction has come on the backs of federal employees through sequester furloughs, pay freezes, diet COLAs and arbitrary cuts. This bill is not perfect. But it’s far better than shutting down the government. My goal is to keep the government open, so we can pass a budget, solve sequester and get back to regular order. And as we solve it, I’ll keep fighting for federal employees who are on the frontlines every day, working to protect the health and safety of the American people.”

She knows, too, that the bill will only add to the $103 billion in federal employee contributions to deficit reduction. Those sacrifices come over 10 years through the freeze and retirement changes.

Federal workers’ backs would be bent even further if the fiscal 2014 spending plan of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) prevails. It is based on the Republican view, a controversial notion fiercely disputed by federal labor leaders, that “compensation for federal employees continues to outpace pay for their private-sector counterparts” and that the federal workplace is characterized by “privileged rules enjoyed by government employees,” as the Ryan document says.

Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, would require federal employees to make increased contributions to their retirement accounts and reduce the workforce by 10 percent by 2015 through attrition.

Ignoring the pay freeze and furlough days, Ryan’s document says, “Immune from the effects of the recession, federal employees have received regular salary bumps regardless of productivity or economic realities.”

J. David Cox Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees, had a sharp reply. “The House Budget released today should be an occasion for fresh outrage, even if its contents are as stale and odiferous as a garbage can holding the carcass of a dead dog.”

By contrast, he spared ally Mikulski the colorful language, saying she “fought valiantly” for a federal employee pay raise in the face of GOP objections.

“Federal employees now will have suffered three years of no pay raises, at the same time hundreds of thousands of them are facing multiple days of furloughs because of sequestration,” Cox said. “It’s hard to imagine the federal government becoming a less- attractive employer than it is today after this decision.”

Eric Yoder contributed to this report. Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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