President Obama issued a strong defense of federal employees in the budget he released Wednesday, along with something they have not seen lately — a pay raise.

The 1 percent raise for 2014 isn’t much, but it’s better than the three-year freeze on their basic pay rates that continues through the end of the year. If the 1 percent hike is little standing alone, it is even less when coupled with another proposal to increase employee pension contributions with no increase in benefits.

Under that plan, a repeat of an administration proposal advanced last year, federal employees would pay an additional 1.2 percentage points of their pay, spread out over three years — 0.4 percent annually. Federal retirement payments and Social Security payments, among other benefits, would increase at a slower rate under an alternative inflation index Obama recommended.

Labor leaders were critical of his budget plan. They don’t forget that many federal employees face unpaid furlough days, up to 27 for public defenders, because of previous agency cuts that run through the end of the fiscal year in September.

Obama’s budget includes a significant advancement in the administration’s effort to treat employees equally: “Domestic partners of Federal employees and new retirees would be eligible for health benefits.” Under this proposal, federal employees in same-sex marriages could, for the first time, cover their spouses as domestic partners. This would sidestep the Defense of Marriage Act’s prohibition against federal recognition of same-sex marriages. Partners in same-sex relationships who are not married also could be covered.

Although Obama apparently believes he can’t afford to be more generous with pay and benefits for federal employees, he was unstinting in his praise for the workforce.

The first paragraph in the budget’s “Improving the Federal Workforce” section proudly notes that “more than 50 current or former federal employees have received Nobel Prizes.

“Whether defending our homeland, restoring confidence in our financial system and supporting a historic economic recovery effort, providing health care to our veterans, conducting diplomacy abroad, providing relief to Hurricane Sandy victims, or searching for cures to the most vexing diseases, we are fortunate to be able to rely upon a skilled workforce committed to public service.”

Kind words, however, were not enough to block criticism of the budget by federal employee groups.

American Federation of Government Employees President J. David Cox Sr.: “The administration seems determined to contribute to a worsening of living standards for federal workers, disabled veterans and the elderly.”

National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen M. Kelley: “Federal workers . . . are facing an actual pay cut this year from unpaid furlough days generated by sequestration, on top of the existing pay freeze.”

National Federation of Federal Employees President William R. Dougan: “It’s clear today that Washington has abandoned federal employees.”

National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association President Joseph A. Beaudoin: “The long-term reduction (from Social Security changes) will be substantial.”

The budget’s federal workforce narrative is designed to answer critics who find an easy target in Washington’s bureaucracy and its workers. To Republicans who regularly complain that the federal government is too big, the narrative provides numbers to show that’s not the case, at least in terms of employees. You can almost see the smirk of budget writers as it invokes the name of the conservatives’ champion of small government.

“The size of the Federal civilian workforce relative to the country’s population has declined dramatically over the last several decades,” according to the budget document. “In overall terms, today’s workforce remains the size it was under President Reagan.”

That’s not true for agencies related to national security and the care of veterans, programs conservatives often support. Those areas have seen significant increases, while domestic programs generally declined.

As it has done before, the administration detailed reasons to pay federal workers adequately. A much higher portion, 55 percent, of federal employees are in high-paid occupations, such as doctors, lawyers and scientists, compared with the private sector’s 33.8 percent. The private sector has a greater portion, 44.9 percent, of workers in the lowest-paid occupations, such as janitors, laborers and cooks. Only 26.1 percent of federal employees are in those categories.

Similarly, the federal workforce is highly educated compared with the private sector’s. About 22 percent of feds have an advanced college degree; 10 percent in the private sector. Among feds, 19 percent have not attended college. That’s 40 percent in the private sector.

These credentials, plus their critical work, tells federal employees they are due more than the budget allows.

Said Gregory J. Junemann, president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers: “Taxpayers do not want the cheapest federal employees they can find.”

Eric Yoder contributed to this report. Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at