The House on Wednesday passed a bill that would freeze federal worker and lawmaker pay through 2013, in what Democrats and labor union leaders called an overly politicized maneuver.
The bill (H.R. 3835), introduced by Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Wis., passed 309 -117 Wednesday. It came to the floor under the House’s suspension calendar, which required a two-thirds majority for passage and allowed for a vote without opportunity for public comment or amendment. Congress typically uses the process on non-controversial bills with bipartisan support.
The measure extends the salary freeze for members of Congress and civilian federal employees, with no changes or cost of living adjustments available until the end of 2013.
House Republicans defended it on the House floor Wednesday using a recent Congressional Budget Office report that found federal workers made 16 percent more than private sector employees on average in pay and benefits combined, and 2 percent more in wages alone. The study noted significant difference in the pay gap, however, when the statistics were broken down by employees’ education levels.
“Our federal workforce performs central functions; we appreciate their service,” said Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Fla. He then cited the CBO study and said: “Those who work the hardest to pay taxes are the ones bearing the burden of a bloated federal government.”
He noted that H.R. 3835 would fulfill the final year of a three year pay freeze for federal workers called for in December 2010 by President Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility. The Obama administration announced earlier this month that it wants to end the freeze and give civilian federal employees a 0.5 percent pay boost in 2013.
“The president’s pay hike proposal is fiscally irresponsible, especially as he is proposing to cut defense budgets,” Ross said. “Where else can a pay freeze equal a 3 percent increase a year but in Washington, D.C.?” he added, referring to step increases within pay grades, which the legislation would not affect.
Duffy echoed these sentiments during Wednesday’s debate, telling House Democrats, “This was your bill. This is a one year extension. The debt commission said, we should have a three-year freeze on federal pay. That’s what this bill does. Let’s freeze for one more year.”
But House Democrats and labor unions did not appreciate the bill being tied to congressional pay freezes, a measure they support.
“I’m concerned about the rationale behind this legislation,” said Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass. “We see a lot of legislation that attacks federal employees. I think this is one more example of that. I totally oppose it.”
“Every year, when we’ve frozen federal pay we have also frozen congressional pay,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. “What we have not done is hold federal pay hostage to what we do with congressional pay.”
Van Hollen introduced alternative legislation late Tuesday (H.R. 3858), which would freeze congressional pay without tying it to a federal pay freeze. House leadership did not agree to put that bill on Wednesday’s suspension calendar.
Republicans needed a minimum of 50 Democrats to vote for the bill for it to pass the House; 72 Democrats voted in favor of Duffy’s bill.
Federal employee unions called linking federal employees’ and lawmakers’ raises a shrewd political maneuver, one that puts middle class federal workers on the losing end.
“I think that people are demoralized,” Julie Tagen, legislative director for the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, told Government Executive. “I think they realize they are being used as scapegoats and that’s just really demoralizing. They lived through the last one and I think they will be more demoralized to know that there will be another one.”
The Obama administration’s announcement earlier this month that it would recommend giving civilian federal employees a 0.5 percent pay raise in 2013 is still a decrease from the 1.7 percent boost federal employees would have received if Obama had based the raise on the change in the Employment Cost Index, as it has been in years past, Tagen noted.
NARFE President Joseph A. Beaudoin expressed disappointment in the House’s move.
“Most federal workers are paid between $25,000 and $75,000 a year to perform the tough jobs that protect our nation,” he said in a statement following the vote Wednesday. “It is essential that we ensure the safety and security of our country and all Americans and federal workers -- such as border patrol agents, food-safety inspectors, and air traffic controllers -- carry out this role every day in every state. Freezing middle-class federal workers’ pay is no way to compensate them for the important work they do.”
“Clearly, this bill. . . is a political ploy setting up a Hobson’s choice that would require representatives to vote against extending the freeze for themselves in order to lift the freeze on federal employees,” National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen M. Kelley said in a letter to House members earlier this week.
Kelley argued that federal workers are making a $60 billion contribution over 10 years to reducing the federal deficit under the current pay freeze.
American Federation of Government Employees President John Gage called Duffy’s bill “political pandering at its worst.”
“It puts lawmakers who support federal employees in the untenable position of having to choose between freezing federal employee wages or voting to increase their own congressional salaries,” Gage said in a statement. “The bill also distracts Americans from the fact that the House Republican leadership favors big cuts to federal employee compensation, yet simultaneously opposes any increase in taxes for millionaires and billionaires.”