A bicameral but uni-partisan parade of legislators rallied with federal employees outside the Capitol on Thursday in a vigorous display of support for their pay, benefits and jobs.
Seven representatives and one senator joined members of the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) in an enthusiastic demand for fair pay, fair play and respect.
“In times of change and in times of transition, when everyone at the top is either coming or going, you are the people who keep our great country running, protecting our citizens and safeguarding our nation, never missing a beat,” NTEU President Tony Reardon said.
Bundled against a cold wind, cheering union members held handmade signs with slogans such as “Proud Federal Employees” and “Like Clean Air & Water? Thank an EPA Employee.”
Passion was abundant. Power, though, was not.
The legislators were all Democrats, a frustrating status in a Congress controlled by Republicans and with an administration led by a government rookie who considers feds swamp dwellers.
President Trump’s call to drain the swamp includes a proposed $54 billion cut to the domestic discretionary budget and a similar increase for defense. A cut of that size places programs and the federal workforce, its pay and its benefits in jeopardy.
“You can count on me and my Democratic colleagues to push back,” freshman Rep. A. Donald McEachin (Va.) told the crowd.
Democrats are pushing for the Federal Adjustment of Income Rates (FAIR) Act, which would raise federal worker pay by 3.2 percent. Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (Va.), one of the speakers at the rally, recently reintroduced the bill.
Citing sacrifices including the three-year partial pay freeze feds endured under President Barack Obama, Connolly said that “it’s time for a little fair play. That’s why we named the act the FAIR Act. Three-point-two percent doesn’t set the world on fire, but at least it gets us back on the road to pay equity in fairness to the men and women who serve the American public.”
Although pushing for a 3.2 percent increase is a good strategy for rousing the base and educating the public, everyone at the rally was aware that it is an approach strewn with Republican roadblocks. In fact, federal employees and their congressional allies could again see the GOP advance a measure that would amount to a reduction in pay by another name.
Republicans have long sought to increase federal employee out-of-pocket contributions to their retirement benefits, but with no increase in those benefits.
It didn’t pass previously, at least in part because “President Obama was always there at the end of the day as the final defense,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said.
Obama is not there now, leaving the defense against such attacks weaker.
“This is a scam,” Van Hollen said of the pension contribution plan. “It’s a straight-out pay cut. I’m all in with you to make sure we stop them from making that backdoor pay cut.”
He railed against “political cronyism” that could undermine the federal civil service system and damage due process safeguards that protect staffers and the public. Republicans have pushed measures that would sharply weaken federal workplace protections.
“We cannot allow people to target you based on their political agenda,” Van Hollen said.
Perhaps Trump and Republicans will look more kindly on the Federal Employees Paid Parental Leave Act, which Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) has introduced with clockwork regularity for years.
It would provide six weeks of paid leave to federal employees after the birth, adoption or fostering of a child. Now the workers can take 12 weeks of unpaid leave.
“I have federal employees call me and ask me about the timing of the passage of my bill,” Maloney said, “so they can time the birth of their child because they can’t afford to give up their pay.”
Papua New Guinea and the United States are alone in their lack of paid paternal leave, Maloney said, adding that “this is a serious issue.”
At the urging of daughter Ivanka, Trump released a maternal — but notably not paternal — leave proposal during the campaign. It would guarantee six weeks of paid leave to new mothers. Perhaps that will allow Republicans to view Maloney’s plan more favorably.
“Given the campaign rhetoric around this issue — on both sides of the aisle — I think the time is ripe for this common-sense proposal,” Maloney said by email after the rally. “The more any of us shed light on this important issue, the better. I’m pleased that it appears Ivanka has made these issues a priority for the president, but at the end of the day, it is up to him to deliver.”
Therein lies the difficulty — the president and his party — with many points on the federal employees’ agenda.