Pay freeze prompts concerns in Congress

By Emily Long

November 30, 2010

In the wake of the Obama administration's decision to freeze federal employees' pay for two years, lawmakers are cautiously expressing concern about its impact on the government workforce.

The president on Monday proposed a pay freeze for 2011 and 2012 that will apply to all civilian workers, including Defense Department employees, but not to military personnel. Workers who are promoted to a higher General Schedule grade still will be eligible for pay raises, officials said.

The president had proposed a 1.4 percent pay hike for civilian and military employees in his fiscal 2011 budget. The Senate Appropriations Committee in July approved legislation that met Obama's request for the civilian raise, but House appropriators have been silent on the issue.

On the military issue, Senate Appropriations in September approved legislation granting a 1.4 percent pay raise for service members, matching the figure included in the Senate Armed Services Committee's Defense authorization bill. The House Appropriations Committee has not released the figure to be included in its Defense legislation, but the House in late May passed its Defense authorization bill with a 1.9 percent pay raise for service members. (An authorization bill represents what Congress intends to spend, but appropriators actually allocate the funds.) Obama has said he opposes the higher proposed increase.

Congress still must approve the president's pay freeze proposal before it can take effect, officials told reporters on Monday. How lawmakers will proceed is unclear, however, said Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va.

"Given the political tectonic shift, obviously the climate of sympathy for the federal workforce has diminished considerably and will be very minimal in the next Congress, unfortunately," Connolly said.

House Democrats said the proposal unfairly singles out federal workers and places an unequal burden on civilian employees by sparing military personnel the freeze. Most expressed only tentative opposition, however, noting cuts are necessary to address the deficit.

Cuts in federal spending should be considered as part of a larger fiscal strategy, said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. The pay freeze reinforces a public perception that government employees are overpaid, he said.

House Majority Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., noted government would achieve additional savings, as well as pay parity, if the freeze applied to both civilian and military employees except those serving in Afghanistan, Iraq and other combat areas.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which is responsible for federal employee issues, expressed support for the freeze.

"I say this with regret, because we are asking many dedicated, hard-working, and patriotic public servants to pay a price for fiscal and economic conditions for which they are not responsible," Lieberman said. "But private sector employees across the country are struggling, and all sectors, including the public sector, must tighten their belts."

The freeze could speed the loss of talent across government and put federal pay further behind the private sector, according to Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va. "This move will only embolden the opponents of civil service, those who got elected claiming the federal government is broken and will now set about trying to break it." Moran said. "It flies in the face of the basic fact that federal employees, particularly those in the management sector, are already underpaid when compared to their private sector counterparts."

Lawmakers pledged to review the proposal and its impact on the federal workforce before moving forward.

Republicans in both the House and Senate applauded the freeze. GOP lawmakers have outlined a number of proposals that would affect the federal workforce, including a hiring freeze for non-security positions.

"At a time when our nation's seniors have been denied a cost-of-living-increase and private sector hiring is stagnant, it is both necessary and, quite frankly, long overdue to institute a pay freeze for the federal workforce," said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. Issa is likely to take over the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which is responsible for federal workforce issues.

"Workers in the private sector are right to be concerned that federal salaries and benefits are, on average, twice as generous," said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. "I would also encourage agency heads to take steps now to freeze federal pay that do not require congressional approval."

Several GOP lawmakers, however, said the president's plan might not go far enough to reduce the federal payroll.

"It's a micromanagement attempt that can easily be bypassed with step increases and a mass of new hiring the White House has already announced," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah. "The concept is solid -- but it still begs a lot of questions."

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, noted the president should go further to cut or freeze growth in the federal workforce. Hatch earlier this year introduced legislation to limit the number of civilian employees to 2009 levels.

By Emily Long

November 30, 2010