WASHINGTON — When the Senate returns from the Presidents’ Day recess on Feb. 25, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will be eager to push through an Obama-approved solution to the March 1 sequestration and to surmount the block put on Chuck Hagel’s nomination for Defense secretary.
He won’t be eager to pick up a House bill passed Friday that would block an order by President Obama to give federal employees a pay hike — no matter where the budgetary chips may fall.
Civilian government workers have been under a pay freeze since 2011, but the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction commission recommended a three-year federal freeze as part of a comprehensive strategy to get the debt under control.
Never one to listen much to former Clinton chief of staff Erskine Bowles or former Sen. Alan Simpson’s (R-Wyo.) recommendations, Obama ordered at the end of 2012 that federal workers be given a 0.5 percent raise on March 27, at the expiration of the current continuing resolution.
Freshman Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) responded with the pay-freeze extension that passed 261-154, including 43 Democrats.
“The bipartisan passage of this bill is a great step toward tackling our fiscal deficiencies and Obama’s overspending head-on,” said DeSantis. “This bill is not a reflection of the fine work done by many federal employees, but is simply a recognition of our current fiscal situation.”
Ten of the votes against the bill were from Republicans — four of those from Virginia, which has no shortage of federal workers.
“Whether fighting crime for the FBI, rooting out terrorism with the CIA, or providing medical care to our veterans at VA hospitals, the dedicated men and women of our federal civilian workforce have served this nation selflessly throughout our nation’s history,” said Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.). “Yet time and time again, these hardworking folks are being singled out during deficit reduction efforts, despite the fact that they have been under a pay freeze since January 1, 2011.”
“Congress charges these individuals with important duties and expects these duties to be performed with the highest caliber of expertise – but rather than being recognized for their service, these public servants see their salary and benefits continually used as a pawn in the game of politics,” he continued.
Wittman said he supports freezing pay for members of Congress, as did another GOP opponent of the federal-employee freeze, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah).
“I’ve had my pay frozen for many years and have supported the efforts to do so. In fact, members of Congress already have their pay frozen – whether or not this bill becomes law,” said Bishop.
“This bill freezes, for a third year, the salaries of federal workers including those at Hill Air Force Base who repair the equipment needed to maintain the safety of our war fighters and other essential defense systems. They make on average twenty thousand dollars less than the average Washington bureaucrat,” he continued. “They are also subject to a furlough, which could also cut up to twenty percent of their wages. This is unfair to them.”
Democrats charged Republicans were using the pay freeze as a distraction for sequestration, which is likely to have a greater impact on the Republican opponents’ districts than withholding a 0.5 percent hike.
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said the impact of the freeze was being exaggerated by Democrats even as it would save the government $11 billion.
“What actually is being asked to be given up by the typical federal worker – the one the president is calling a huge sacrifice – is $274 per employee per year,” Issa said on the floor.
After the bill’s passage Issa noted a Congressional Budget Office study that found federal employees are on average compensated 16 percent more than their private-sector counterparts.
“In fact, during the so-called ‘pay freeze’ federal employee pay has gone up by $3,328 while private sector pay has gone up only $1,404. The federal employee attrition rate is the same now as it was before the so-called ‘pay freeze.’ Nearly half-a-million federal employees make more than 100,000 per year,” Issa said.
“If President Obama does not get serious about finding spending cuts to avoid his sequestration, many federal employees will be furloughed, resulting in an actual reduction in compensation and harm to productivity.”
“The executive order proposed by the President is evidence that he clearly does not understand that spending continues to be the biggest problem in Washington,” said Rep. Bob Gibbs (R-Ohio). “With the automatic spending cuts scheduled to go into effect on March 1, 2013, we should be making strides to reduce our spending, not spending more money that we do not have.”
A statement of administration policy released by the Office of Management and Budget on Wednesday noted that the current freeze already saved more than $60 billion over 10 years.
“Federal civilian employees are central to the Federal Governmentˈs success in serving the American people. They assure the safety of this countryˈs food and airways, defend the homeland, provide health care to the Nationˈs veterans, search for cures to devastating diseases, and provide vital support to our troops at home and abroad,” the OMB statement said.
“The President issued Executive Order 13635 to ensure that when this pay freeze expires, Federal employees would receive the increase proposed by the President without triggering the higher increase that would otherwise take place under statute. This modest pay increase will help ensure that the Government remains competitive in attracting and retaining the Nationˈs best and brightest individuals for public service.”
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said “these kinds of measures might not be necessary if Senate Democrats had passed a budget at any point in the last four years, or if the president would submit a responsible budget to Congress on time.”
“But until Washington gets serious about addressing its spending problem, and stops making it harder for small businesses to hire, the federal government shouldn’t be giving itself an across-the-board pay raise,” Boehner added.
Democrats who crossed over to the GOP side on the bill predictably included the fiscally conservative Blue Dogs, but also some more liberal members such as Rep. John Tierney — the only member of the all-Dem Massachusetts delegation to vote in favor of extending the freeze — and Rep. Al Green (D-Texas).
But Democratic opponents took solace in their upper-chamber counterparts seeing that the bill would probably never be brought to the Senate floor.
“The only good thing I can say about the bill before us today is that it has zero chance of becoming law,” said Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.).