The House Appropriations Committee yesterday approved a 3.5 percent raise for federal civilian employees, more than double the pay increase sought by President Bush.
Lawmakers voted 42 to 16 to accept the pay provision as an amendment to the $90 billion spending bill for the Transportation and Treasury departments. The Senate has not yet voted on the pay question, but the House committee action all but ensures that the increase will go through.
Bush in February proposed a two-tiered federal pay hike: a 1.5 percent average raise for civilian workers and a 3.5 percent hike for members of the armed forces. White House officials said the plan would be fiscally prudent and allow all employees to keep up with inflation while rewarding the military during a time of war and heightened national security concerns.
Lawmakers of both parties instead deferred to a two-decade-old tradition of "pay parity" and granted civilian workers a raise equivalent to that proposed for the military. Supporters of pay parity have argued that awarding a higher raise to the military would send a message that civilian employees' work is not valued, and make it harder to recruit and retain talented workers. And they have pointed out that many civilians, such as employees of the CIA, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, play vital roles in preserving national security.
"Military personnel and federal civilian employees work side by side and for the same employer," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), who sponsored the pay amendment along with Reps. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) and James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.). "Our nation is able to deploy our air, sea and land fleets safely and swiftly thanks to the muscle and logistical support of both federal civilian employees and military employees. So it is appropriate to provide them with equal pay adjustments."
Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), who also worked to pass the pay amendment, said both groups are key to making the government run and "both must be compensated accordingly."
Rep. Ernest J. Istook Jr. (R-Okla.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that handles the federal pay raise, had strongly argued against pay parity. He had urged Congress to back Bush's approach, saying cumulative past raises had outpaced inflation and cost billions of dollars. Granting civilians the 3.5 percent raise next year would cost an extra $2.2 billion, he said.
"Frankly, this is eating up the money we say we want to have for other purposes," Istook said during the debate.
Clay Johnson III, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, said yesterday that granting all civilian employees the same pay raise doesn't make sense. "We should target salary increases where we need them to address" problems of recruitment and retention, he said.
Advocates of pay parity have cited Bureau of Labor Statistics figures that there is a 32 percent gap in pay between federal civilian employees and their private sector counterparts.
Federal employee union leaders applauded the House panel's decision, saying a 1.5 percent increase would be inadequate.
If the full pay raise is enacted, it will not take effect until January. Staff writer Stephen Barr contributed to this report.