Despite President Bush's plan to freeze part of the annual federal pay raise and hold the civil service salary increase to 3.1 percent, two House members who take a special interest in the government's workers confidently predict that Congress will add a "locality pay" adjustment to provide a total 4.1 percent pay raise next year.
Reps. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) and Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), in interviews this weekend, played down Bush's announcement, calling it the product of a statutory deadline for a pay decision and the budget gridlock over fiscal 2003 spending priorities.
"We are going to revisit the appropriations in January. Congress is on record giving the 4.1 percent," Davis said.
Hoyer said he had spoken recently with House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and was confident that the House would provide a 4.1 percent pay raise, retroactive to Jan. 1, when it meets next month.
On Friday, Bush said federal employees should receive a 3.1 percent increase in their basic pay next year, as called for by a 1990 federal pay law. The law bases the across-the-board raise on a survey of nationwide employment costs conducted by the Labor Department. But Bush said he would not provide an increase in the second component of federal salaries -- the "locality pay" adjustment -- because of "a national emergency" caused by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The pay law calls for a decision on locality pay by Nov. 30, and Bush opted to freeze the locality adjustment -- and potentially save about $1 billion -- rather than to partially or completely fund the increase. Locality adjustments, designed to close the gap between federal and private-sector salaries, are supposed to reflect private-sector wage changes in cities where civil service employees work.
Bush's decision took on more weight than in previous years because he began the year recommending a 2.6 percent increase for civil service employees and because Congress missed the Oct. 1 deadline to approve appropriations bills for the start of fiscal 2003.
A bill that passed the House and a Senate committee would have provided for a 4.1 percent pay raise. Although Bush objected to the raise, he had not threatened a veto over it and more than likely would have accepted the salary increase.
Unable to move the pay raise and other spending bills to Bush, Congress approved a "continuing resolution," or CR, to keep the government operating. The continuing resolution expires Jan. 11, a few days after Congress will likely resume its work.
The Washington area delegation, Hoyer said, will "try to make sure whatever we pass between now and January 11, when the CR runs out, will include a 4.1 percent raise retroactive to January 1. And that's my expectation of what will happen."
The president, Davis said, has to make the numbers work in the interim. "This is the problem with CRs. . . . We all knew it was a problem, and there was really no way to fix it in the CR," he said.
The muddle over federal pay, to some extent, grows out of a well-intentioned effort by Congress to narrow the difference between government salaries and those offered in the private sector. But the federal pay law has not been followed in recent years, primarily because it would cost too much and because of questions about the methodology used to calculate differences between federal and private-sector pay rates.
In his letter Friday, Bush invoked a clause that allows him to cite a national emergency as a reason for limiting salary increases. "Full statutory civilian pay increases in 2003 would interfere with our nation's ability to pursue the war on terrorism," Bush said.
A full statutory raise, however, was never on the table. Many lawmakers, as they have in previous years, decided to maintain "pay parity" with the military in setting a civil service raise. Bush began the year recommending a 4.1 percent military pay raise and recently signed the increase into law.
"I think we make a huge mistake when we treat the military and civilians differently," Davis said.
Hoyer said anything less than 4.1 percent sends the wrong message to civil service employees, including the more than 170,000 transferring into the new Department of Homeland Security.
Bush invoked the law's national emergency clause in order to technically comply with the law, Hoyer suggested. "The irony is that the FBI, the CIA, the Transportation Security Administration, the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control, Customs, the INS -- these are all civilian-sector employees on the front lines of stopping terrorism," Hoyer said.
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