Dozens of lawmakers from both parties do not want to take any chances in ensuring federal employees are taken care of during a shutdown, pushing legislation that would guarantee back pay for anyone furloughed during an appropriations lapse.
Sixty-six members of Congress have already signed on to the Federal Employee Retroactive Pay Fairness Act, which was introduced by Virginia Reps. Don Beyer, D, and Rob Wittman, R. About 350,000 federal workers would be sent home without pay if Congress does not act by Friday evening to fund an array of agencies that have yet to receive full-year appropriations. An additional 500,000 employees would report to work normally during a partial shutdown because they are exempted from furloughs, but they are guaranteed back pay once the government reopens.
“Preferably, Congress will reach an agreement to enact legislation to fully fund the government and allow our dedicated federal workforce to continue to carry out its critical mission,” Beyer wrote in a “dear colleague” letter pushing the legislation. “In absence of such agreement and with time running dangerously short, federal employees should be assured that there is agreement in Congress that they will receive their full pay in a fair and timely manner.”
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The departments of Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, State, Interior, Agriculture, Treasury, Commerce, Homeland Security and Justice, as well as other independent agencies, are currently operating under a continuing resolution set to expire on Friday. Those agencies will be forced to shut down if Congress fails to act, with the National Science Foundation, NASA and the Housing and Urban Development Department set to send home the highest rate of employees.
Congress has already allocated a majority of full-year spending, with President Trump signing legislation that accounts for 75 percent of annual discretionary appropriations. Those bills set line-by-line spending for the departments of Defense, Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, Energy and Veterans Affairs, among other agencies.
Federal agencies appeared out of the woods as of late Wednesday after the Senate passed another stopgap measure for unfunded agencies through Feb. 8. The House was set to follow suit on Thursday. President Trump threw a wrench into those plans, however, when he said on Thursday that he did not support the continuing resolution.
Congress has already acted to give some federal employees a holiday gift, sending to Trump’s desk a measure to boost pay caps for Secret Service agents. The Secret Service Overtime Pay Extension Act (H.R. 6893), introduced by Rep. Steve Russell, R-Okla., will waive the premium pay cap for agency employees for the 2019 and 2020 calendar years in preparation for the upcoming presidential election. Under the bill, Secret Service employees would be able to make up to Level II of the Executive Schedule in total pay, instead of the $160,000 mandated by the premium pay cap. In 2018, the waiver caps annual pay at $189,600.
In recent years, the Secret Service has struggled with poor recruitment and retention, in part because more employees are running into the overtime pay cap. Russell said that without an existing waiver for the agency in 2018, nearly 1,000 employees would have hit the cap by July.
The bill originally only extended the cap waiver for one year, but Secret Service Director Randolph “Tex” Alles asked lawmakers to extend it through 2020 in light of the anticipated workload increase during a presidential election year. Lawmakers have said the measure will help the agency stave off attrition.
In disheartening news for federal employees’ paychecks, Congress appears unlikely to include a pay raise for civilian workers as part of any last-minute spending measure. Senate Democrats made an 11th-hour push to attach a 1.9 percent pay increase to the CR, but Republican leadership ultimately stymied those efforts. Absent congressional intervention, Trump has promised to institute a pay freeze in 2019. He still must issue the requisite executive order this month to formalize that plan.
Maryland Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin, both Democrats, have vowed to renew their push for a pay raise retroactive to Jan. 1, 2019, when Congress comes back to work next year, saying it should be the “first order of business.”