Acting OMB Director Russell Vought testifies before Congress in early March.

Acting OMB Director Russell Vought testifies before Congress in early March. Susan Walsh/AP

Trump's Top Budget Official Defends 2020 Pay Freeze to Congress

OMB chief pledges to work with agencies to develop performance and mission-based pay plans.

The White House’s top budget official argued in favor of a 2020 pay freeze for federal employees, telling lawmakers on Tuesday the plan would free up agency heads to deliver merit-based pay.

Russell Vought, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, told a panel of the House Appropriations Committee that the usual across-the-board pay bump each year does not provide incentives for good performance. He said OMB would work with agency heads to design new plans that would allocate funding based on merit and agency needs.

The administration is “putting forward a proposal in this budget to give agencies more discretion to be able to have bonus payments, [and] increase salaries for recruitment and retention,” Vought said. “What we have rejected is just do an across-the-board cut because we think that is the wrong way to align incentives.”

Vought did not spell out where the funding would come from for those payments on top of what agencies already give out, and President Trump’s fiscal 2020 budget proposal similarly did not make those details clear. In his fiscal 2019 blueprint, Trump proposed a $1 billion “performance fund” to provide agencies with additional resources for rewarding top performers. Congress declined to appropriate any money for that fund—instead providing an across-the-board raise—and Trump dropped the proposal.

The acting budget director highlighted the 1.9 percent pay bump feds will receive this year as “something that is going to be there for them to benefit from as well.” Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., quickly pointed out that the raise was “certainly not at the insistence of the administration.”

“I agree with that,” Vought responded.

Amid criticism of the proposal, Vought said the new approach would “not necessarily” only target areas of critical need and skills gaps.

“We’d be working with agency heads to be able to design plans to be able to ensure high-priority areas are addressed,” he said, “but also high performance across the agency [is] also receiving the kind of incentive payments that [employees'] merit, their performance, had justified.”

Acting Office of Personnel Management Director Margaret Weichert said last week the administration is analyzing proposals for rethinking rewards, retention and recognition, but declined to spell out details on the funding for those efforts.

“I think we will have more to come in the upcoming months about exactly what the proposals are going to look like on that front,” Weichert said.

At the hearing on Tuesday, Vought made clear many of the administration’s budget proposals are fluid. He repeatedly told lawmakers the administration was open to discussing its recommendations to slash or eliminate certain programs. Vought echoed a sentiment Weichert, who also serves as OMB’s deputy director for management, expressed last week.

“Language in budgets, I wouldn't read too much into it,” she said.

Vought faced pointed questioning from the panel’s chairman, Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., over White House officials’ use of messaging programs such as WhatsApp to conduct official business. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., who chairs the House Oversight and Reform Committee, revealed last week that White House Senior Adviser Jared Kushner and other top staffers used such apps. The acting OMB director largely demurred, referring questions to individual agencies. He eventually conceded, however, that federal employees should not use private messaging apps.

“I think that’s fair,” Vought said.