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Trump Signals Intent to Nix Proposed Federal Pay Increase

Congress can weigh in if it feels need to maintain agreed-upon pay hike

President Donald Trump walks from the South Lawn to Marine One on his way to Joint Base Andrews on July 27. (Photo By Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call)
President Donald Trump walks from the South Lawn to Marine One on his way to Joint Base Andrews on July 27. (Photo By Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call)

President Donald Trump signaled his intent to rescind a scheduled pay increase for federal workers, informing Congress on Thursday that federal law allowed him to do so in the event of a “national emergency or serious economic conditions affecting the general welfare.”

The move drew a quick response from D.C.-area members and is almost certain to draw howls from the Senate, which included a 1.9 percent pay raise in its Financial Services spending bill. That measure was part of a four-bill, $154 billion package that passed the Senate 92-6 earlier this month.

The Senate Appropriations Committee emphatically beat back an amendment to strike the pay raise during a markup in June, rejecting the proposal in a 2-29 vote and keeping the raise.

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Maryland Democrat representing many federal workers living in the D.C. area, quickly criticized the move.

“Zero. This seems to be how much respect President Trump has for federal workers,” he said in a statement.

“It is outrageous and hypocritical that after spending billions of taxpayer dollars on unnecessary tax cuts for the wealthy and big corporations … that suddenly the White House finds that there is zero money left to pay a minimal cost-of living adjustment,” he added.

The pay freeze was also criticized by Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, who said Trump was “feeling cornered and lashing out by cancelling a modest, planned pay increase for our dedicated federal workforce.”

“His tax bill exploded the deficit, and now he is trying to balance the budget on the backs of federal workers,” the Virginia Democrat said. 

Trump explained the move in terms of the national debt, now more than $21 trillion, and the annual deficit, expected to be $804 billion in fiscal 2018.

Besides an across-the-board pay increase of 2.1 percent scheduled to go into effect in January 2019, Trump noted that locality pay increases taking place in high cost-of-living areas would amount to $25 billion.

“We must maintain efforts to put our Nation on a fiscally sustainable course, and Federal agency budgets cannot sustain such increases,” he wrote in his letter to Congress.

“Accordingly, I have determined that it is appropriate to exercise my authority to set alternative across-the-board and locality pay adjustments for 2019. … Specifically, I have determined that for 2019, both across‑the‑board pay increases and locality pay increases will be set at zero.”

The president also pointed to the need to make federal pay “performance-based, and aligned strategically toward recruiting, retaining, and rewarding high-performing Federal employees and those with critical skill sets. Across-the-board pay increases and locality pay increases, in particular, have long-term fixed costs, yet fail to address existing pay disparities or target mission critical recruitment and retention goals.”

A similar pay increase is not in the House Financial Services Appropriations bill. Democrats fumed over that bill not including a long-standing pay freeze for the vice president and top administration officials. Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, the ranking Democrat on the Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee, complained that the bill would remove the pay freeze for “one of the wealthiest Cabinets we’ve ever seen.”

Meanwhile, the largest union representing government workers is rejecting the move to eliminate the pay increase for fiscal 2019 and calling for Congress to follow the Senate’s lead.

“President Trump’s plan to freeze wages for these patriotic workers next year ignores the fact that they are worse off today financially than they were at the start of the decade,” American Federation of Government Employees National President J. David Cox Sr. said in a statement.

He said the 1.9 percent pay increase would “help prevent workers from falling further behind next year and help federal agencies recruit and retain the high-caliber workforce that the public expects and deserves.”

“Federal employees deserve the full measure of pay comparability provided by the law, and a 1.9 percent increase is the minimum that Congress should consider,” he said.

Katherine Tully-McManus contributed to this report.

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