House lawmakers voted Wednesday night to freeze their pay and the salaries of congressional staffers and civilian federal employees, scoring a symbolic victory for congressional Republicans who have targeted government compensation as an example of excessive federal spending.
On a vote of 309 to 117, GOP supporters scored the two-thirds majority needed to approve the measure under a suspension of normal procedural roles.
The bill, introduced by Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wis.), would extend the current two-year freeze on federal cost-of-living raises for an additional year starting next January. Lawmakers haven’t raised congressional pay in four of the last six years.
The bill would need to be approved by the Senate before becoming law.
In advance of the vote, Republicans touted a Congressional Budget Office report published Monday that said federal employees on average earn about 2 percent more than private sector employees in a comparable profession. When pension and health benefits are factored in, CBO said federal employees earn about 16 percent more in total compensation than private sector workers.
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With those numbers in mind, “The federal government has no incentive or obligation to reduce salaries in order to be competitive to stay in business,” Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.), who chairs the House subcommittee on federal personnel, said before the vote. “It simply borrows more money or raises taxes.”
But Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), ranking member on the House committee that oversees federal personnel issues, said federal employees have already sacrificed to help pay down the federal deficit by enduring a two-year federal pay freeze ordered by President Obama in 2010. The freeze is set to save taxpayers $60 billion in the next decade, Cummings said.
“This bill appears to be a disingenuous and disrespectful attack against federal workers,” Cummings added as he also criticized GOP leaders for pushing for a quick vote on the bill without an opportunity to propose amendments.
Ross and other Republicans shot back — noting that the overwhelming majority of federal employees eligible for within-grade step increases — which come with a modest bump in pay — received them in fiscal 2011. The step increases averaged $1,303 during the freeze, Ross said.
Democrats also blasted Republicans for including congressional compensation in the bill, saying it would force vulnerable members supportive of boosting federal pay to vote for a freeze for fear of being cast as supportive of congressional pay raises.
In response, Duffy said Wednesday: “While Congress asks the rest of the government to cut costs, it’s important that we ask the same of ourselves.”
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said she understands the push to freeze federal pay as other Americans are facing financial hardship, but she warned that sustained Republican attacks on federal compensation levels could backfire.
“When you single out repeatedly one part of the budget, federal employees finally begin to look like what they weren’t in the beginning – victims,” she said in an interview. “It does seem to me that with employees all over the country having to make sacrifices, that everybody would expect federal employees to make a sacrifice. The problem is that federal employees have become a kind of piggybank – whenever you need some money, you take it from the federal employees.”
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