WASHINGTON — House conservatives want to extend to a full three years the current freeze on cost-of-living pay increases for the nation's 2 million civilian federal workers.
They say that blocking a modest raise proposed by President Barack Obama for the last nine months of this year will save $11 billion over the long run and that well-compensated federal employees can afford it.
Democrats, and a few Republicans, say federal workers have already done more than their fair share in helping reduce the federal deficit and they are being singled out for punishment by anti-government lawmakers.
The House on Thursday took up legislation by freshman Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., that would block the 0.5 percent pay increase Obama ordered in December and scheduled to go into effect at the end of March. DeSantis said federal spending is out of control and his bill "tackles Congress and our bloated federal government head-on." His bill would affect across-the-board pay increases but not merit and longevity raises.
The GOP-led House is expected to pass the bill on Friday, but it's likely to receive a cold reception in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Obama in 2010 initiated a two-year pay freeze, starting in 2011, as part of efforts to rein in government spending, and legislation last year to avoid a government shutdown extended that until March 27 this year. DeSantis' bill would stretch that freeze until the end of the year, cumulatively saving $11 billion over 10 years. His measure would also ensure that the pay freeze for members of Congress, now in effect until the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, continues until the end of the calendar year.
The White House, which has indicated it will include a 1 percent federal pay increase in its 2014 budget proposal, came out against the DeSantis bill, saying the 0.5 percent raise, still lower than what federal workers are entitled to under law, would help ensure that the government "remains competitive in attracting the nation's best and brightest individuals for public service."
Budget hawks, in supporting the freeze, say the average federal worker compensation, including benefits, is nearly double the median U.S. household income. They point to a 2012 Congressional Budget Office study showing that, while wages are similar for federal workers and comparable private sector workers, federal workers on the whole had more generous benefit packages. Overall, it said, total compensation is 16 percent higher in the public sector.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee cited figures showing that, with merit-based raises and other "step" increases, the median pay for a federal employee in September last year was $72,714, up more than $3,000 from two years earlier.
But public worker unions and their allies say people with professional degrees — the scientists, foreign service officers and CIA analysts who hold critical government positions — can earn far more in the private sector and point to Bureau of Labor Statistics locality studies showing federal pay lagging behind the private sector.
National Treasury Employees Union president Colleen M. Kelley said the House bill was "a particularly galling step in light of the fact that federal workers have contributed far more than any other group to economic recovery and deficit reduction." She and others said the ongoing freeze, coupled with recent moves to increase pension contributions for new federal workers, will save the government $103 billion over 10 years.
Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia's nonvoting delegate to Congress, said the burden on federal workers will be compounded if Congress fails to find a way to avert automatic spending cuts to take effect at the end of the month, triggering massive furloughs, or if an impasse over the budget leads to another government shutdown at the end of March.
One of the harshest critics of the bill was Republican Frank Wolf, whose northern Virginia district includes many federal workers. "This bill is nothing more than a political stunt that targets the hardworking, dedicated men and women of the civil service," he said in a letter to his GOP colleagues, reminding them that people who haven't seen a raise in more than two years include CIA and FBI agents, border and customs agents, nurses and doctors at VA facilities, food inspectors, firefighters at national forests and NASA astronauts and engineers.
House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland said that the House bill was indicative of hostility toward government among some and that the House should instead be trying to figure out a way to avoid the $85 billion in defense and nondefense cuts to occur at the end of this month.
According to the Office of Personnel Management, there were about 2.1 million civilian workers in 2011. The number has been consistently around the 2 million mark for the past 50 years.