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Federal Pay Groundhog Day

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Federal pay again is dominating the news, as the Obama administration and House Republicans yet again offer contrasting proposals on government salaries.

President Obama is proposing a 1 percent pay increase for federal civilian employees in fiscal 2014, which we reported Friday evening. The White House announced the decision to recommend the pay bump in Obama's upcoming fiscal 2014 budget blueprint during a phone call with federal employee labor leaders. But, as some readers pointed out, feds are still waiting for the 0.5 percent pay boost this year. The president has said federal workers will receive the 2013 increase after March 27, when the current continuing resolution keeping the government open expires. That is, of course, if Congress doesn’t block it. And things don’t look so promising on that front at the moment….

Because there’s another piece of legislation (H.R. 237) pending in the House that would prevent federal employees from receiving that across-the-board pay raise this spring. The House Rules Committee on Wednesday afternoon was considering several amendments to the bill, sponsored by Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., and the full House planned to vote Friday on the legislation. It’s likely the measure will pass the GOP-controlled House, like previous similar bills, but the Democratic-led Senate hasn’t demonstrated much enthusiasm in the last few years for legislation targeting federal workers’ pay and benefits.

Federal civilian employees’ pay has been frozen since 2011. Not that I need to remind most of you of that.

Many of the amendments submitted to the panel for H.R. 273 are reminiscent of previous stand-alone legislation lawmakers have pushed. For example, one of the amendments from Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., would replace the 2013 sequester with a mix of spending cuts and revenue increases to reduce the deficit. That’s the fourth time he’s floated that idea. Other measures would extend the congressional pay freeze until the end of the 113th Congress and replace DeSantis’ bill with a 5 percent pay cut for lawmakers. But the committee is more likely to approve for consideration amendments that are less favorable to feds, including one that prolongs the federal pay freeze for government workers (and lawmakers) through 2014 and another from Rep. Martha Roby, R-Ala., which suspends step increases for feds through 2013. Roby unsuccessfully tried to push that through during the last Congress.

Federal employee unions this week have voiced their opposition to the DeSantis bill, and on Tuesday morning, House Rules Committee Ranking Member Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., issued a press release chiding Republicans for going to the government workforce well for money again. “Instead of working to stop the sequester, Republicans in the House would rather go after their favorite punching bag -- middle-class federal workers -- and then take a week off,” Slaughter said. “It’s shameful that a nurse working at a VA hospital and a custodian working in a federal building haven’t had a pay raise in two years because the House GOP thinks middle-class and working families should bear the entire burden of reducing our deficit.”

While lawmakers should be looking at everything as potential source of savings, denying feds a 0.5 percent pay raise in 2013 is pretty small potatoes in the scheme of things. If the sequester goes through, the government will have to cut $85 billion from the budget in fiscal 2013. 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.

Stay tuned. I will have an update later on H.R. 273.

Military Matters

Most of the general population isn’t well-versed in the nuances of military pay and benefits. That changed – somewhat -- this week with Phil Bronstein’s story in Esquire about the former Navy SEAL who says he killed Osama bin Laden. While the story’s “sexiness” relies on the Shooter’s fascinating account of Geronimo’s demise, the thrust of Bronstein’s story is that the Shooter didn’t get a pension or continued TRICARE health benefits when he left the Navy SEALs, shortly after he completed his famous assignment but before he had served the customary 20 years in the military.

The headline of Bronstein’s story is “The Man Who Killed Osama bin Laden…Is Screwed.” While the Shooter is eligible for health benefits for up to five years through the Veterans Affairs Department, his family is not, hence his “screwed” status, according to Esquire. Apparently, the initial online version of the story (since corrected) lacked the details about the VA benefits that appeared in the print edition, prompting one reporter to criticize the story’s premise. Here’s a write-up from Poynter on the controversy.

There’s been a lot of inside baseball debate over changing the military compensation system, particularly the life-long TRICARE benefits and retirement benefits available only to those who have spent 20 years in the military. Perhaps Bronstein’s story will help take the debate to the masses.

Kellie Lunney covers federal pay and benefits issues, the budget process and financial management. After starting her career in journalism at Government Executive in 2000, she returned in 2008 after four years at sister publication National Journal writing profiles of influential Washingtonians. In 2006, she received a fellowship at the Ohio State University through the Kiplinger Public Affairs in Journalism program, where she worked on a project that looked at rebuilding affordable housing in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. She has appeared on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, NPR and Feature Story News, where she participated in a weekly radio roundtable on the 2008 presidential campaign. In the late 1990s, she worked at the Housing and Urban Development Department as a career employee. She is a graduate of Colgate University.

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