President Barack Obama’s proposed pay freeze for civilian federal employees drew criticism Monday from federal employee unions, praise from Republican leaders and a tepid response from a key House Democrat.
The proposal would restrict civilian pay to its current level until 2012, which the White House estimates would save $60 billion over the next 10 years.
The major unions representing federal employees immediately attacked the proposal, saying it would hurt the government’s ability to retain and attract high-quality workers while doing little to make a dent in the deficit.
John Gage, the national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 600,000 government workers, dismissed the proposal as a “public relations gimmick.” “I’m tired of having federal workers scapegoated,” he said in a phone call with reporters.
But House Minority Leader and Speaker-designate John Boehner not only praised the pay proposal, but called for even more cost cutting by imposing a federal hiring freeze.
“I welcome President Obama’s announcement, and hope he will build on it by embracing much-needed steps to reduce both the size and the cost of government, including the net federal hiring freeze Republicans propose in our ‘Pledge to America,’” the Ohio Republican said, referring to the House GOP’s agenda. “Without a hiring freeze, a pay freeze won’t do much to rein in a federal bureaucracy that added hundreds of thousands of employees to its payroll over the last two years while the private sector shed millions of jobs.”
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), ranking member of the House Budget Committee, echoed that demand in his own statement.
But outgoing House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer responded more cautiously, calling for a “shared sacrifice” among civilian and military federal employees, with the exception of military personnel serving in combat zones. Under the president’s proposal unveiled Monday, military employees at the Defense Department would not be subject to the freeze.
“In the coming days, I will review closely President Obama’s proposal for its balance between fiscal responsibility and the need to recruit and retain a federal workforce able to provide the level of service that the American people expect,” The Maryland Democrat said. “Because meaningful deficit reduction cannot be achieved through a piecemeal approach to trimming federal spending, I am hopeful that the administration will propose a comprehensive and serious program for deficit reduction that recognizes the need for a comprehensive approach.”
Neither Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) nor Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) issued statements Monday on the pay freeze.
Earlier this year, the Senate rejected one proposal that would have frozen federal civilian employee pay levels and a similar measure that would have blocked cost-of-living increases as well as raises and bonuses.
But with the president on board with the pay freeze, “chances are slim” that the unions could stop Congress from voting to take away the scheduled 1.4 percent pay increase for 2011, Gage said.
‘Not Just Faceless Bureaucrats’
As politicians step up their criticism of Washington, Gage said the union must wage a public relations campaign to fight the perception that the federal workforce is overpaid and underworked.
“It is up to the unions to get it across to the public that these are not just faceless bureaucrats who do nothing,” he said.
Gage said he became aware about a week ago that the pay freeze was being considered but suggested there was little he could do to convince White House officials to shelve the proposal.
“It sounded to me like a done deal,” Gage said. The union chief added that he spoke to Hoyer on Monday about the freeze.
Gage said he will become more concerned if Congress tries to reduce retirement benefits or freeze the workforce, as Boehner has suggested.
He said the Republican Leader’s proposal was “a know-nothing position” that did not take into account the increased workload of many federal workers.
Leaders of other federal unions also joined in the criticism of the proposed freeze.
“It is unfortunate that the Administration has chosen to support a policy that could diminish the government’s ability to recruit and retain top talent at the federal agencies that protect our borders, care for our veterans, and support our armed forces abroad,” said a statement from William Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, which represents more than 100,000 federal employees.
Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said her union would explore several options in response to the pay freeze, including working with Congress to reject it. Kelley said her union had already begun lobbying the relevant committees on the Hill.
The 1.4 percent increase that has been proposed for the 2011 fiscal year was reflective of average increase in wages for the private sector, she said.
Kelley added that she was not given advance notice that the administration was considering the freeze.
Union officials said it was their understanding that the freeze would only apply to cost-of-living increases and would not affect bonuses or step increases.
Congress Not Subject to Freeze
The Obama administration’s proposal would not affect Member salaries or those of their staffs.
But Congressional salaries will remain level through 2011 because Members voted to block their otherwise automatic pay raises. Obama signed that measure into law in May.
Members of Congress would have received a pay raise of less than 1 percent, or about $1,600, in 2011. Lawmakers receive an annual cost-of-living increase tied to inflation unless they vote to block the funds.
Rank-and-file House lawmakers and Senators receive a salary of $174,000. The Speaker receives $223,500, while the Majority and Minority leaders of each chamber receive $193,400.
House and Senate aides are paid from their respective Member’s office budgets, and salaries, raises and bonuses are determined by each lawmaker.
Vice President Joe Biden waits to conduct a mock swearing-in ceremony with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, December 2, 2014. Schatz was sworn in to serve the remainder of his term since he was appointed to the seat after Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, passed away.