Furlough Back Pay Is Own Goal For Republicans

WASHINGTON -- After voting this year to keep federal employees' pay frozen, Republicans in Congress have accidentally given many government workers their first raise in three years.

It's one of several unintended consequences of the Republican gambit to defund Obamacare by shutting down the government. It isn't a nominal raise, and it won't improve most workers' lives one bit. In fact, so far it's brought mostly misery and anxiety. But here's how it's a one-time raise.

Hundreds of thousands of federal workers have been off the job for two weeks due to the government shutdown. As part of the deal hatched Wednesday to reopen the government, Congress included a measure to pay those workers retroactively for the time they missed, as a matter of fairness, just as it has in the budget impasses of yesteryear. The rationale: federal workers shouldn't have to pay the price for Congress's failures.

But in a symbol of just how wasteful a government shutdown is, lawmakers -- many of whom complain that the federal workforce is bloated, and who haven't granted workers a single cost-of-living adjustment since 2010 -- have forced federal employees to perform two fewer weeks of work for the same salary, all due to congressional squabbling. That's a full pay period, amounting to 3.8 percent of annual wages.

So take your pick: Congress gave workers either an inadvertent pay bump that adds nothing to their income, or an extra two weeks of anxiety-ridden vacation that most of them couldn't enjoy.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) noted the irony of the situation in a speech on the Senate floor earlier this month. He aimed his remarks at Republicans, who had originally demanded changes to Obamacare in exchange for funding the government.

"They are telling all these federal workers: 'What we are going to do for you now -- even though we don't like federal workers and we haven't given you a raise in three years -- what we are going to do now is give you a paid vacation,'" Reid said. "That is what it is. These people who want to go to work can't go to work, but they are going to get paid."

Not that the vacation time was fun for most. The workers HuffPost spoke to throughout the shutdown used their days off to fret over their mortgages and utility bills. Not knowing when Congress would get its act together, they stayed close to home, bored and worried, waiting to be called back to work.

"When you're locked out, forced out and just very aware of the work not getting done, you don't get this sense that you're on vacation," said Julie Pierce, a 36-year-old mother of two on furlough from her job with the Social Security Administration.

After the government shutdown began at the beginning of the month, House Republican leadership embarked on a strategy of pushing a series of rifleshot bills to put pressure on Democrats, who mostly opposed each measure. But a bill to pay federal workers who'd been furloughed received unanimous support from both parties. There was little doubt that the Senate, which is controlled by Democrats more friendly to federal workers, would go along with the plan.

Although the ongoing freeze on cost-of-living adjustments for federal workers began with wide bipartisan support, it is now primarily Republicans who oppose bumping workers' pay. (Some workers, it should be noted, have still received pay raises through so-called "step" increases, though others' wages have remained stagnant.) When the House took up the pay freeze in February, members spoke of budget constraints and alleged discrepancies between pay for public and private workers.

"America does not need pay raises for bureaucrats," Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) said on the House floor. "They need real leadership. They need real reform and a real commitment to putting our country back on a path of prosperity. American taxpayers deserve no less."

During this month's shutdown, though, Republicans had more sympathy for bureaucrats.

As Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) put it, "This bill will provide backpay for those workers who have been furloughed in a fair, full, and timely manner after the shutdown ends."

John Boehner

2013 Government Shutdown

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