Pay-freeze pitches are ‘demoralizing,’ says Virginia Democrat

Proposals to freeze federal employees' pay might make good headlines in lawmakers' home districts, but they are "demoralizing" to public servants, a Virginia Democrat said on Thursday.

Such proposals also make it that much harder for the government to compete against the private sector for talent, said Rep. Gerry Connolly, during a breakfast discussion in Washington hosted by Government Executive. Lawmakers should be more supportive of civil servants and the critical work they do, he said. But he noted one of the things he has learned during his first term in Congress is the further from the Beltway his colleagues' constituencies get, the harder it is to explain the complex issues the federal workforce faces and build sympathy.

Connolly said he wants no part of the government-bashing that has emerged in the run-up to the midterm elections. Skepticism of government is healthy, he said, but it should not get carried so far that citizens lose faith in public institutions and stop participating in politics.

"I'm certainly not going to campaign on freezing civilian pay," Connolly said. "That's a campaign pledge."

The freshman Democrat noted he is a strong advocate for giving civilians and military members the same annual raise and is pleased President Obama returned to the concept of pay parity in his second budget request. Connolly also said he supports the idea of paying employees based on how well they perform their jobs, but that it could be a nightmare to implement across an organization as large as the federal government.

Any performance-based pay system must be transparent and objective, and have safeguards against abuse, Connolly said. Agencies could have separate systems, but the Obama administration should establish some baseline parameters and expectations, he said.

Connolly said he is confident that Defense Department officials will be able to come up with a performance management arrangement to replace the ill-fated National Security Personnel System, but added Congress will help them if they don't. He said he supports measures to ensure employees moving from NSPS back to the General Schedule aren't unintentionally penalized for the pay raises they received under NSPS, noting he is not entirely comfortable with the idea of holding those employees back until the General Schedule catches up to them. He said he would consider a proposal adding steps to GS pay grades to resolve the issue.

Other changes that could make government more attractive as an employer according to Connolly include more robust telework and internship programs. He said he is optimistic the House will pass a bill to increase telework once it is brought up under regular order requiring a simple majority vote, and noted a bill he introduced to strengthen student internship programs (not to be confused with the Federal Career Intern Program, which he has criticized), has been incorporated into the fiscal 2011 Defense authorization measure.

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