Lawmakers vow to intervene with Obama administration proposal to cut pay for feds in danger.
In recent years, congressional Republicans have been better known for their proposals to cut federal employees’ compensation than for their attempts to boost it.
Some typical crusaders against increased spending in government, however, were outraged about a Obama administration plan to cut pay for certain feds.
The State Department recently notified many of its Foreign Service officers working in Mexico their paychecks will soon shrink as their locations no longer qualify for danger pay. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee members from both parties condemned that decision at a hearing on Wednesday, saying affected employees work amid violent crime and face significant travel restrictions.
Gregory Starr, State’s assistant secretary at the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, said in towns like Nuevo Laredo, Mexico -- which borders Laredo, Texas -- danger pay is not warranted. While U.S. federal employees are prohibited from leaving consulate grounds in the town that recently did away with its local police force, Starr said the workers can easily “walk across the border and be in a Walmart or a Dairy Queen.”
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, the committee’s chairman, said that convenience would do little to appease family members of Foreign Service officers stationed in the town.
“Shame on you for saying that,” Chaffetz said. “It’s so dangerous they can’t even go outside.” He added employees facing decreased pay should not blame Republicans or funding shortfalls: “You can look at the Obama administration.”
Chaffetz said the cuts were “not useful” and would damage morale, noting the problem fell with State’s management. Starr maintained the department was “not having trouble staffing” the positions in the Mexican towns, and noted employees in some areas of the country would receive a pay bump.
Danger pay is generally used for areas with “civil insurrection, civil war, terrorism or wartime conditions which threaten physical harm or imminent danger to the health or well-being of an employee,” according to federal statute.
There are about 2,800 State employees in Mexico, but the number involved in areas with crime is “minimal,” according to the department’s Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Sue Saarino. She said in some areas employees are told to stay off the street at night, but “we think it’s manageable.”
Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, said Congress should intervene on the danger pay issue.
“Congress will probably have a say on this,” Cuellar said. “Not that we want to micromanage, but appropriations should be involved.”
State is currently building two new consulates in Mexico -- one in Nuevo Laredo and the other on another border town of Matamoros -- and a new embassy in Mexico City. Chaffetz complained those projects are taking too much time and money to complete. The chairman challenged State officials to name one State facility built under budget during the Obama administration, but they failed to come up with an example in the moment.
“Given State’s own warnings about the danger Mexico poses to U.S. citizens and officials, it seems that building these facilities should be a priority,” Chaffetz said. Yet, it has been a fiasco over the last few years.”
State officials said the new facilities will eventually help address issues including migration, counter-narcotics, trade and border security, as well as the full range of consular activities. Starr added that in addition to improving the physical security of the buildings, the department is increasing training for federal workers stationed in Mexico on “how to better respond in these environments.”
“I recognize the hardships that our people and their families endure in such environments,” Starr said. “It is a testament to their courage, their commitment and the important work they are accomplishing abroad.”