House Democrats drop Pence, cabinet pay freeze from federal worker raise bill

The bill’s lead sponsor said continuing the executive-level pay freeze would have jeopardized the broader bill

House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern, D-Mass., is interviewed by CQ Roll Call in the Capitol on Jan. 7, 2019. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern, D-Mass., is interviewed by CQ Roll Call in the Capitol on Jan. 7, 2019. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted January 30, 2019 at 10:59am

House Democrats are primed to remove a provision of federal worker pay legislation set for a floor vote Wednesday that would have continued a pay freeze for Vice President Mike Pence and other senior Trump administration officials.

The Rules Committee adopted the changes as part of a self-executing rule for floor debate on the underlying bill, which would give the roughly 2 million federal civilian employees a 2.6 percent pay raise this year. That would put civilian workers on par with military servicemembers, who got the same raise in the fiscal 2019 Defense appropriations bill enacted last year.

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, D-Va., the bill’s lead sponsor, said continuing the executive-level pay freeze would have jeopardized the broader bill. “We want to stick with the main thing,” he said.

The statutory pay freeze for Pence, Cabinet officials and other senior White House political appointees, which has in place since 2013, will come out of the underlying bill once the House adopts the rule for floor debate. Pence, who makes $230,700 now, and other affected senior officials would get the same 2.6 percent raise as other civilian workers under Connolly’s bill, if the rule is adopted and the bill becomes law.

Connolly said the Congressional Budget Office has told him the cost of implementing the 2.6 percent pay bump would be around $5 billion to $6 billion. But he estimates that when measured against a 2.1 percent increase that would otherwise take effect under a 1990 law, the cost increase would only be around $1 billion.

It’s not clear that the GOP-controlled Senate would take up the measure, however, or that President Donald Trump would sign it. Trump has proposed to freeze federal civilian worker pay for 2019.

Meanwhile, House and Senate appropriators have already signed off on a smaller, 1.9 percent pay raise for federal workers, as part of fiscal 2019 spending legislation the House already passed and a Senate GOP version that didn’t advance to a final vote last week. That’s the same boost that Pence and other senior political appointees would receive if the 1.9 percent provision ends up in the final version of the spending bill.

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., ranking member of the Rules Committee and an appropriator, said he sees no reason the Senate or the Trump White House would accept the 2.6 percent increase.

“We’ll see what happens,” Cole said. “I mean, they’ll pass it tomorrow on the floor, but obviously they’re going to have to sit down with the Senate and the administration.”

In the Rules Committee meeting Tuesday, members on both sides commiserated with federal workers for missing two paychecks and for their general suffering during the partial government shutdown. But the parties disagreed on their approaches to compensating those employees.

“It creates parity between pay increases for military and civilian employees, and it makes clear the Congress values their work,” Rules Chairman Jim McGovern, D-Mass., said of Connolly’s bill. “The majority is committed to giving them the resources they need to provide for their families. It is the right thing to do.”

The manager’s amendment, besides striking the executive pay freeze, would also eliminate the pay raise’s retroactivity to Jan. 1, instead making the raise effective upon enactment of the legislation.

Republicans complained about the bill not having gone through the committee process and not having been officially scored by the CBO.

“Many of us believe that this is nothing more than a messaging bill and not serious about trying to make real reforms to the federal workforce,” said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., who argued instead to target funds for retaining, in particular, higher-paid workers who could get better pay in the private sector.

The freeze on senior officials’ pay temporarily ended Jan. 5, as the partial government shutdown that began Dec. 22 dragged on. Pence’s salary could have risen nearly $13,000, to the $243,500 level set in the executive order, if no action was taken, while Cabinet officials making just shy of $200,000 would get $11,000 raises.

However, the White House recognized the negative optics of letting the highest-paid administration officials get big raises while some 800,000 federal workers weren’t getting paid at all. The Office of Personnel Management called a halt to any pay increases on Jan. 4 until Congress made its will on the issue known.