Congressional Leaders Are Defying Trump With A Federal Pay Raise

With a spending bill likely headed to his desk, the president has to decide how badly he wants to stick it to government workers.
Last year President Donald Trump blocked an automatic 2.1 percent increase for federal government employees for 2019.
Last year President Donald Trump blocked an automatic 2.1 percent increase for federal government employees for 2019.

Update: Both the Senate and House have passed the spending bill, and the White House said the president will sign it.

The members of Congress tasked with hashing out a plan to avert another government shutdown want to give federal employees a raise, defying President Donald Trump’s previous efforts to freeze their pay.

The funding deal put together by Senate negotiators calls for a 1.9 percent across-the-board raise for government employees for 2019, half a percentage point more than their pay hike last year. The GOP-controlled Senate is expected to approve the bill Thursday, sending it to the Democratic-controlled House, where it also faces favorable odds.

The White House has not yet indicated whether the president will sign the legislation. The package includes $1.4 billion in funding for a physical barrier along the southwestern border — far short of the $5.7 billion Trump previously demanded. In fact, the deal is worse for Trump than he could have had in December, when he said he would “proudly” shut down the government to secure more money for a wall he used to promise Mexico would pay for.

But he was blamed more than Democrats for the record-setting 35-day shutdown and may accept the deal in order to avoid further political damage. If he does, the legislation will mark a retreat for Trump not just on the wall but also in his political fight with the federal workforce.

Since taking office in 2017, Trump has tried to weaken government job protections and peel back collective bargaining rights, lumping civil servants in with what he calls “the swamp.” He has also periodically wielded the threat of a government pay freeze, even while boasting about a strong economy and rising wages in the private sector.

After the Senate proposed a 1.9 percent increase last year for 2019, he sent a letter to Congress saying he wanted to nullify it. He essentially said the government couldn’t afford to pay any raises, even though Republicans recently passed tax cuts expected to increase the deficit by nearly $2 trillion through 2028.

Even though a majority in the House — controlled at the time by the GOP — never signed off on a pay increase, an automatic 2.1 percent increase would have gone into effect anyway on Jan. 1., because of the federal pay schedule. But Trump intervened to block it, resetting the pay hike to zero through executive order.

The government was partially shut down at the time, with roughly 800,000 workers going without paychecks. A union for federal employees said Trump was “pouring salt into the wound” by pre-empting a raise when so many workers were furloughed or working without pay.

“The 1.9 percent increase in the spending proposal would be the largest since 2009, though still below the raises that preceded the recession.”

But now it would be much tougher for Trump politically to reject a modest across-the-board hike after a damaging shutdown. By and large, Americans sympathized with federal workers who were subjected to more than a month of financial anxiety through no fault of their own. In one U.S. poll, respondents said, 50 percent to 35 percent, that Trump should have compromised to avoid the funding lapse.

The National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, an advocacy group for federal workers, called the pay increase proposed in the potential spending deal “long overdue common sense.”

“This average 1.9 percent pay increase is a small, yet positive, step to ensure the federal government can recruit and retain the best of the best for the benefit of the American people,” said the group’s president, Ken Thomas.

Federal workers have faced some lean raises in recent years, compared with historical standards. Then-President Barack Obama oversaw a three-year pay freeze in the wake of the Great Recession, though he tried to end it earlier than planned but was stymied by Republicans. Federal employees can still get raises through step increases during a pay freeze, but those depend on tenure and pay grade and aren’t available to everyone in a given year.

The 1.4 percent pay increase in 2018 was the largest across-the-board pay bump in eight years. Each of the four preceding years saw a 1.0 percent increase. The 1.9 percent increase in the spending proposal would be the largest since 2009, though still below the raises that preceded the recession.

If Congress passes the spending bill and Trump signs it ― they have until Friday night to avoid a shutdown ― federal government employees will make out much better than government contractors.

While the former were granted backpay by Congress after the last shutdown, the latter missed out on several weeks’ worth of earnings while federal offices and functions were closed. Democrats and some Republicans tried to insert a provision in the current proposal to get those workers backpay, but it became a sticking point for GOP leaders. Ultimately, it was left out.

“I don’t think we should at this moment let it get in the way of funding the government on Friday,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), one of the GOP members involved in negotiations, told HuffPost on Wednesday.

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