House Democrats made fresh moves Wednesday to use their majority to cause Republicans political discomfort, holding votes on a pay raise for civilian federal employees and a resolution decrying government shutdowns to highlight what they cast as GOP mismanagement.
Wednesday’s votes followed a 35-day partial government shutdown, and Democrats described the pay raise in particular as both a necessity and a gesture of appreciation for a battered federal workforce. It passed on a 259-161 vote.
The 2.6 percent raise is calibrated to match that given to military personnel in a 2019 spending bill passed last year. President Trump subjected the rest of the federal workforce to a pay freeze in a Dec. 28 executive order, though Congress could override that at any time.
“We need to make sure pay is keeping pace with the rising cost of living for those who serve this country in civilian roles, as well as those in military roles,” said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.). “They are no less deserving of our gratitude and fair compensation.”
Twenty-nine Republicans joined Democrats in voting for the pay raise, but most did not. GOP leaders protested that the bill had not been vetted in committee and that across-the-board pay raises were bad policy.
Rep. Mark Meadows (N.C.), the top Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee dealing with the federal workforce, said the bill “rewards the bad along with the good.”
The bill, he said, “says it doesn’t matter what kind of job you do, and I think that’s a terrible message to send.”
Republicans offered an alternative that would deny a pay raise for federal employees disciplined for sexual misconduct. While 17 Democrats voted for the alternative, the measure failed.
Separately, the House voted on a resolution stating that shutdowns are “not an acceptable tactic or strategy for resolving differences regarding policy, funding levels, or governing philosophy.” But that, too, became an occasion of partisan posturing.
Republicans fumed at the measure, with Meadows calling it a “political stunt” and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) taking to the floor to call it a “glorified press release” and accuse Democrats of using the House process to “settle political scores.”
The shutdown began Dec. 22 when Republicans held the majority in the House and Senate.
An earlier version of the bill that explicitly blamed Trump for the shutdown was withdrawn because of GOP objections, including threats of disruptive floor tactics. One Republican lawmaker made an unplanned motion to adjourn Tuesday in protest, forcing lawmakers to cut short hearings, meetings and appointments to trudge back to the Capitol.
To Democrats, the resolution was a case of what’s good for the goose being good for the gander.
During their previous eight years in the majority, Republicans routinely forced Democrats to take politically treacherous votes or symbolic ones, such as dozens to repeal the Affordable Care Act. In July, Republicans forced a vote on a resolution supporting Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents at a time when many Democrats were highly critical of the agency’s tactics and some were calling to abolish it.
While 21 Republicans joined Democrats in supporting the shutdown resolution, which was brought up under expedited procedures requiring a two-thirds vote, it was not adopted.
Democrats pointed to the pay raise as a measure of real significance to federal employees who have seen their compensation slip behind counterparts in the private sector. While federal employees would be entitled to certain raises under the Trump pay freeze, including yearly “step” increases, the across-the-board increase is meant to address the rising cost of living and keep federal salaries competitive in a tight labor market.
Before the shutdown began, Senate appropriators had agreed on a 1.9 percent raise for civilian employees in 2019, but that provision — along with the rest of a federal spending agreement — got caught up in the standoff over Trump’s proposed wall on the southern border.
The ensuing shutdown delayed two paychecks for 800,000 workers, and Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), the author of the bill, said the pay raise is “not only deserved, but it’s also symbolically important.”
“After the shutdown, it’s imperative that this body make a statement to the civilian workforce that it is respected, that their work does have dignity and we recognize that,” he said Tuesday.
The bill was co-sponsored by every Washington-area House member, including Don Beyer and Jennifer Wexton of Virginia, Anthony G. Brown, Jamie B. Raskin and David Trone of Maryland, and D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton. All are Democrats.
Federal salaries were frozen in 2011, 2012 and 2013 under President Barack Obama, who was under pressure from congressional Republicans to get federal budget deficits under control.
Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), said no decisions have been announced on when or how that chamber might take up a civilian pay raise.
Five Senate Democrats on Tuesday introduced legislation instituting a 2.6 percent pay raise, matching the House bill. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said the increase over the negotiated 1.9 percent raise was justified “in light of the added costs imposed on federal workers by the shutdown.”
“Now more than ever, they deserve this cost of living adjustment to help make ends meet,” he said.
Congressional aides, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private discussions, said the pay raise will probably have to be settled as part of the ongoing spending negotiations.
The short-term spending bill that ended the shutdown is set to expire Feb. 15. Bipartisan negotiators are meeting this week to begin hashing out Department of Homeland Security funding in hopes of reaching a border security deal. The other funding bills, which include the pay raise, are less controversial and could be passed once the wall issue is settled, the aides said.
The pay raise won plaudits from unions representing federal employees. The president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, which represents thousands of employees including NASA scientists, immigration judges and Social Security hearing examiners, said the raise is needed to retain and recruit skilled employees in the face of an administration that is hostile to federal workers.
“This pay raise will be welcome, not only because wages have fallen behind, but because it signals that the work being done is valued,” said the president, Paul Shearon.