Obama’s plan for a 1 percent federal pay hike can survive even if his budget doesn’t

Joe Davidson
Columnist March 4

Presidential budgets frequently are considered DOA — dead on arrival — when they get to Capitol Hill. Congress often ignores them.

But when it comes to federal pay, ignoring President Obama’s proposed 1 percent pay raise is the same as passing it.

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

The president’s plan will take effect in January by default if no law setting a different figure is enacted. That happened this January, when workers also received a 1 percent hike.

Congressional Democrats have joined federal employee organizations in complaining about the meager increase. Yet Democrats don’t see Congress approving a bigger boost. Republican leaders largely have been silent. If that pattern holds, the 1 percent that feds see now is what they will get next year.

The pay raise was not included in the budget figures released by the White House on Tuesday, but it will be in documents coming next week.

Obama’s budget proposal: Spending by agency

One percent doesn’t keep up with inflation. It would follow a three-year freeze on basic federal pay rates and some pay decreases through budget-cutting furloughs last year.

While the small increase understandably upsets federal employees, this budget plan does represent a shift from previous situations that forced feds to give and give.

Presidents of the two largest federal unions — the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) and the National Treasury Employees Union — praised Obama for investments in federal employee training, among other things. They both cited the $138 billion the federal workforce has contributed to deficit reduction over 10 years through the freeze and other measures.

Obama administration officials recognize federal workforce sacrifices, but say the 1 percent boost is the best they can do.

“We are pleased we can do the 1 percent,” said Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Sylvia Mathews Burwell, drawing attention to “how tight the numbers are.”

There are trade-offs that must be made in the budget process, she added: “A 1 percent increase is what we felt we were able to do in the context of the budget constraints.”

In a conference call later, Beth Cobert, OMB’s deputy director for management, said, “We recognize that the last few years have been challenging for the federal workforce” and listed a range of vital services performed by federal workers. “We are fortunate to be able to rely on a skilled workforce committed to public service. We want to ensure that we retain an engaged, well-prepared and well-trained workforce. . . . We want to recruit the next generation of federal leaders, sustaining our workforce so it can continue to do the work of the nation for decades to come.”

Past pay freezes and furloughs don’t make recruitment and retention any easier.

“The president has suggested that the proposed 1 percent pay adjustment is going to allow for the federal government to be more competitive in recruiting top-tier candidates. This line of thinking is flawed because the real income of the federal workforce is decreasing,” said William R. Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees.”

“While we applaud the president for protecting federal employees’ retirement security in his budget, I believe we are nearing a tipping point for the federal workforce. . . . Workers are becoming increasingly unhappy with their federal employment.”

The retirement security protection that Dougan mentioned is not in Obama’s current budget proposal. In his two previous budget plans, the president proposed increasing the contribution of employees toward their retirement benefits by 1.2 percentage points over three years.

The training proposal includes development programs for new and current members of the Senior Executive Service. The administration plans demonstration projects “to identify promising practices” in the recruitment and retention of talent, with the goals of increasing diversity, reducing skill gaps and improving service.

In other employee-related budget measures, Obama proposed allowing the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program to cover domestic partners of federal employees and new retirees, including same-sex couples, in 2016.

Obama expects to save $340 million over 10 years through changes, some opposed by labor, in the Federal Employees’ Compensation Act, better known as workers’ comp. Among other things, he wants to amend FECA so that in the future, employees on workers comp reaching retirement age would move from disability payments to retirement benefits. Other changes include establishing a waiting period for all beneficiaries and reducing improper payments by authorizing the Labor Department to cross-match FECA and Social Security records.

The president’s budget plan promises “to put a stop to short-sighted cuts to Government operations that compromise efficiency and effectiveness and cost money over the long run.”

AFGE President J. David Cox Sr. said the administration should do more than that. He wants a 4 percent raise for feds and for Congress to repeal “all the cuts that have been made to federal retirement benefits.”

That’s not likely. Not now.

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

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

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