This story has been updated.
The House Thursday afternoon paved the way for a full vote Friday on a bill that would extend the federal pay freeze through 2013.
Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., along with 28 cosponsors, wants to prolong the current pay freeze for civilian government employees through the end of the year. President Obama issued an executive order on Dec. 27, 2012, that would end the two-year salary freeze on March 27 -- when the current continuing resolution expires -- and give civilian federal workers a 0.5 percent raise in 2013. DeSantis’ move to block the order also applies to lawmakers, but Congress already voted to freeze its pay in 2013 in the fiscal cliff legislation signed into law in January.
Democrats used the hour-long floor debate Thursday on the bill to defend federal workers, but also to accuse Republicans of failing to avoid sequestration, which is scheduled to begin March 1. Republicans reiterated that they have already passed legislation that would deal with the automatic spending cuts. Supporters of the legislation pointed out the extension of the across-the-board federal civilian pay freeze would not affect merit pay increases or those associated with promotions.
“Now we will be dealing with a bill today and tomorrow that could be considered in an hour. We’re going to take two days to consider it,” said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md. “And while we consider that, while we fiddle, the sequester threatens to burn our economy, jobs and confidence and we do nothing.”
Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Ga., who defended the bill during floor debate, said the legislation is not intended to disrespect federal employees. “In no way do I want to minimize the tremendous responsibility places on our federal civilian workers. Again, I have chosen a career of public service, as have they and I admire them for it. I know it’s a great sacrifice to themselves and their families,” Woodall said.
“But in this tough time, until we can get a handle on the debt and the deficit, my constituents continue to look at how their tax dollars appear to be paying salaries and benefits higher to federal employees than what my folks are getting back home,” Woodall said, referencing a 2012 Congressional Budget Office report that concluded federal workers on average earn more compensation than their private-sector counterparts.
Woodall also said the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles Commission, which President Obama appointed, recommended in 2010 a three-year pay freeze on federal workers.
“This is an idea from the president’s fiscal commission, and we are bringing it to the floor today,” said Woodall, who sits on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Nixing an across-the-board pay increase for feds this year would save the government $11 billion over a decade, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. Woodall said agencies could use the savings from extending the pay freeze through 2013 for other federal programs. The money saved would not go toward overall deficit reduction or replacing any part of the sequester.
The White House Wednesday night said it opposed the bill, arguing that feds have been subject to a pay freeze since 2011. That freeze is expected to save $60 billion over the next decade. “Federal civilian employees are central to the federal government’s success in serving the American people,” the statement of administration policy said. “They assure the safety of this country’s 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 policy statement did not, however, threaten a veto on the bill.
Federal employee unions also voiced opposition to H.R. 273.
“If Congress cancels the very modest 0.5 percent pay raise proposed by the president, federal employees and their families will take an additional hit, to the tune of over $11 billion, for a grand total of $114 billion in reduced compensation. Enough is enough!” said Joseph Beaudoin, president of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association. “It is time Congress found other ways to reduce the deficit than to continually take from those who dedicate their lives to public service. Continuing the pay freeze will only exacerbate the problem of an underpaid federal workforce and weaken the quality of our federal civil service over time.”
Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., whose district includes many federal employees, sent letters this week to his Republican colleagues urging them to oppose H.R. 273.
Democrats were candid in their assessment of the legislation, calling it a political ploy. “This is one of the dumbest bills I’ve ever seen come to this floor,” said Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., arguing that any savings from the legislation would not fix the country’s fiscal problems. The Democrat also launched a passionate defense of feds, which prompted some applause in the chamber, when he talked about government workers who helped his state after last fall’s devastating Superstorm Sandy.
“Employees from [the Federal Emergency Management Agency], the Army Corps of Engineers, [Housing and Urban Development Department] and many other agencies were on the ground immediately,” Pascrell said. “They walked the streets, navigating through flooding, debris, downed power lines; these Army Corps, these FEMA folks in order to assess damages and reach out to the victims. They’re not nameless. They’re not faceless bureaucrats. These are heroes who continue to contribute each and every day to our ongoing rebuilding.”
The Rules Committee Wednesday night threw out all the amendments submitted for consideration, including one from Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., that would have replaced the looming sequester with a mix of revenue increases and some spending cuts. The panel also rejected measures that would have extended the pay freeze on civilians through 2014, one that would suspend step increases through the end of this year and another that would have frozen lawmakers’ pay through 2013 but exempted federal workers.
It’s likely H.R. 273 will pass the GOP-controlled House, like previous similar bills, but the Democratic-led Senate hasn’t demonstrated much enthusiasm recently for legislation targeting federal workers’ pay and benefits.
“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.
Separately on Thursday, Van Hollen introduced stand-alone legislation to replace sequestration through 2013 with a mix of spending cuts and tax increases. Senate Democrats also unveiled their plan Thursday to avoid the automatic spending cuts.