Proposal for a 2019 Pay Freeze Called 'Dunderheaded' and 'Pennywise and Pound Foolish'

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said: “We’re already seeing disinterest in federal service . . . It’s pennywise and pound foolish, if we’re constantly spending money on recruiting and training for new employees.” Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said: “We’re already seeing disinterest in federal service . . . It’s pennywise and pound foolish, if we’re constantly spending money on recruiting and training for new employees.” Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

Lawmakers and federal employee groups on Thursday blasted reports that the Trump administration would institute a pay freeze for all civilian federal employees in 2019 as a “foolish” idea that could decimate participation in public service.

Documents from the Office of Management and Budget and the Homeland Security Department provided to Senate Democrats by a whistleblower outlined discussions over the department’s upcoming funding request for fiscal 2019. Among other revelations, OMB rejected DHS’ request for a pay raise for a variety of subcomponent employees and officials also refused an increase for Customs and Border Protection health benefits.

Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., said Thursday that instituting a pay freeze would place an undue burden on public servants, and make it harder to recruit the next generation of federal employees. Upwards of 40 percent of current feds will become eligible for retirement in the next several years, he said.

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“Given the huge retirement bubble of the baby boom generation in federal service, the timing couldn’t be worse,” he said. “To be proposing yet another pay freeze will make federal careers less and less attractive, especially to the millennials we need to be recruiting and retaining.”

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., echoed that sentiment, and noted that a pay freeze could actually cost money, if the expenses associated with increased employee turnover are taken into account.

“If there isn’t a reward system in place, it’s going to be extraordinarily difficult to recruit,” she said. “We’re already seeing disinterest in federal service . . . It’s pennywise and pound foolish, if we’re constantly spending money on recruiting and training for new employees.”

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., expressed his dismay at the proposal in a series of tweets Thursday afternoon, highlighting the high concentration of national defense workers who live in his state.

“Many of Virginia’s federal employees are on the front lines of keeping America safe,” he wrote. “[If] people in the White House want to freeze people’s salaries, they should start with their own, or members of Congress’s. But leave these hardworking Virginians out of it.”

Jeff Marschner, a spokesman for Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-Va., said the congresswoman would not support a pay freeze for federal workers, and Congress should act to ensure employees receive a raise.

"As the congresswoman has said before, the federal budget cannot be balanced on the backs of our federal workforce," Marschner said. "She does not support this type of across-the-board freeze. As is the usual course with these proposals, Congress addresses these issues in a different way and has provided the needed pay adjustments."

Unions and other groups representing federal employees also denounced the possibility of a pay freeze. Tony Reardon, national president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said in a statement that after three consecutive years of pay freezes during the Obama administration, feds don’t deserve to be responsible for deficit reduction.

“Refusing to give our nation’s civil servants a modest increase, again, would cause them to fall even further behind their counterparts in the private sector,” he said. “It would make it harder for the government to recruit and retain the highly skilled professionals needed to protect our security, our economy and our public health. A pay freeze would be a callous attack on middle-class Americans who have chosen to serve their country and their fellow citizens.”

J. David Cox, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, agreed it is time for politicians to stop penalizing federal workers for choosing to serve their country.

“For the administration to say they are going to freeze government employees’ pay next year is insulting to these hardworking civil servants and the sacrifices they make for our country,” Cox said in a statement. “They know they’ll never get rich working for the federal government, but they believe in the mission and are willing to accept a lighter paycheck for the privilege of serving their country.”

National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association President Richard Thissen said there is no reason to institute a pay freeze when the economy is on the up-swing and private sector pay is increasing.

It "is nothing more than an attack on the civil service,” he said. “This pay freeze proposal, along with proposed cuts to federal retirement benefits, aims to undermine the value this country places on public service by targeting the income security of those who carry it out. Whether caring for our veterans, responding to disasters or just ensuring the day-to-day operation of democratic government, the work these individuals do is vital to our country, and it should be rewarded, not devalued.”

Connolly said he believes it is time for Congress to stop abdicating its ability to set civilian federal employee pay to the executive branch and begin legislatively mandating raises, as it did for military service members when it approved the National Defense Authorization Act last month.

“Every year, I’m the main author of the FAIR Act, which provides a pay raise for the civilian workforce, and I’m going to continue to do that,” he said. “Congress needs to take the lead and it needs to protect the federal workforce from this kind of dunderheaded thinking.”

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