The bill is silent regarding an executive order issued just before the election that would change the status of federal employees whose work involves making or carrying out policy or giving confidential advice to top officials. Under the order, they could be dismissed with little cause or recourse, much like the political appointees who come and go with each administration, and competition would no longer be required when filling such jobs.
Federal agencies have been working to complete lists of such positions ahead of a Jan. 19 deadline — the day before President-elect Joe Biden will be inaugurated — for conversion into a new category of positions to be called “Schedule F.”
Federal employee organizations, many Democrats in Congress and good-government organizations meanwhile had pushed for the bill to stop that process and prevent the administration from firing incumbents and potentially replacing them with employees of its choosing.
“I am disappointed Republicans were unwilling to stand up for our federal employees and reject President Trump’s Schedule F executive order, but I won’t give up,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), chair of the House Oversight subcommittee on government operations.
“Congress must protect the civil service and I will look forward to working with the Biden administration to reverse this executive order with all deliberative speed,” he said in an emailed comment.
Also absent from the bill is any reference to a federal employee pay raise. Trump’s original budget proposal advocated a 1 percent increase and said that if Congress does not enact a figure by year’s end, he would authorize that amount. The House, in passing a bill that has now become part of the larger measure, did not specify a raise, in effect endorsing that amount.
However, more recently the Senate produced a counterpart that called for no raise, which the White House’s Office of Management and Budget supported. The OMB cited “the context of budgetary constraints and the recent, pandemic-related impacts on non-Federal labor markets.”
The final word on the raise will come in an executive order due to be issued before year’s end.
“Because Congress was silent on federal employee pay in 2021, we believe the president’s alternative pay plan for a 1 percent across the board raise, issued in February, should stand,” National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) President Tony Reardon said in a statement.
“Despite President Trump’s last-minute support for a pay freeze, the next step should be an order releasing the pay tables, reflecting the 1 percent raise in 2021,” Reardon said. “We would challenge any attempt by the president to override his own alternative pay plan.”
The White House did not immediately respond to questions about the pay raise or implementation of the executive order.
Another provision of the budget bill gives federal employees more time to repay Social Security taxes they owe after an administration directive that waived those taxes starting in September as an intended economic stimulus. Under that policy, that 6.2 percent tax was not collected if an employee’s Social Security-taxable earnings were below $4,000 in a two-week pay period.
That probably affected most federal employees outside the U.S. Postal Service, which as a quasi-corporation chose not to participate. In participating agencies, individual employees were not allowed to opt out.
The IRS said at the time that affected employees would have to repay the shortage — presumably through an increase in Social Security withholdings starting in January, although that was not specified — by the end of April or face potential tax penalties. The pending bill would stretch that out through 2021.
The NTEU, which along with other unions protested the suspension as potentially creating a financial hardship once employees had to repay it, called the change “a fair resolution to a shortsighted policy.”
“Our federal employees and service members should never have been pawns in Trump’s payroll tax scheme,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), who along with some other congressional Democrats had pushed legislation to allow federal employees to opt out. Although that did not pass Congress, “this provision to extend the payment period will provide at least some relief to those caught in Trump’s political shell game,” he said in a statement.
Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) said in a statement: “Now military families and federal workers will see that repayment spread across a much larger number of pay periods, minimizing their short-term decrease in income. In passing this payroll tax fix Congress is beginning the great task of cleaning up Donald Trump’s mess, and we have so much more of that work to do.”