The pay provisions are part of the annual Defense Authorization bill, which sets spending levels and policy for the Pentagon, the largest single employer of federal employees. Lawmakers regularly add government-wide personnel provisions to the bill despite its focus on military matters.
House lawmakers began voting on the measure — considered a “must-pass” bill because of its focus on military issues — on Wednesday and are expected to hold a final vote today, according to House aides. The Senate has not yet drafted a counterpart.
Most federal employees have their performance rated annually, commonly on four- or five-level scales in which “unacceptable,” or a similar term, is the lowest rating. Those ratings are used in decisions such as promotions and awards, but annual raises typically are paid across the board regardless of performance ratings.
“Currently, all federal civilian employees, no matter how they are rated on their performance, receive the annual nationwide adjustment in January of each year,” a House committee report on the defense bill said. “Federal civilian employees who are rated as ‘below satisfactory’ still receive an increase in salary despite the fact that they are underperforming. An incentive is necessary to entice these employees to improve their job performance.”
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, is eager to enact a pay-for-performance system, but failed earlier this year to have it included as part of the House GOP’s 2012 budget proposals.
“Americans believe in pay for performance,” Issa said in a statement issued late Wednesday. “The federal pay system is not a pay for performance system. This provision moves us in the right direction, because it stops rewarding non-performers.”
Federal worker union leaders — who are opposed to performance-based pay — did not immediately return requests for comment.
Surveys of federal employees also have shown dissatisfaction with how well pay raises reflect performance, as well as dissatisfaction with how agencies deal with poor performers. Workers have been skeptical of performance evaluations, arguing in some cases that bosses could manipulate results to promote certain colleagues over others.
A special system was created at Defense during the George W. Bush administration that attempted to tie pay more closely to performance, but a 2009 law ordered its repeal, in part due to lack of confidence in the performance ratings.
The bill’s language would effectively be a moot point for 2012 because federal salary schedules already have been frozen in place for next year under a two-year pay freeze law enacted late in 2010. Even moving forward, the language likely would affect relatively few employees — the report says that at Defense, for example, only about 1 percent of employees receive a rating of unacceptable.
But the language reflects long-running criticisms from congressional Republicans and conservative groups that the federal pay system provides largely automatic raises that do not reflect either especially good nor especially poor performance by an individual.