Congress

Contractors would receive shutdown pay in next spending package

Contractor back pay would provide the same benefit granted to direct federal employees

Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., questions Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin during a House Financial Services Committee hearing. She is seeking to add provisions in a spending bill to aid contractors during a shutdown. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

House Democrats would make whole federal contractors who didn't get paid during the 35-day partial government shutdown that ended in January as part of a $383 billion fiscal 2020 spending bill set to hit the floor next week. 

The package combines five bills: Commerce-Justice-Science will be the vehicle, carrying the Agriculture, Interior-Environment, Military Construction-VA and Transportation-HUD measures as well.

[Shutdown ends but its damage will last]

Discretionary spending subject to budget caps in the measure total about $310 billion. Extras that don't count against the regular caps, including transportation spending authorized separately, emergency funds to help repair storm-damaged military bases and a special one-time allotment for the 2020 census, bring the total to $383.3 billion, according to a summary from House Appropriations Democrats.

Inclusion of contractor back pay would provide the same benefit that Congress granted to direct federal employees, who typically receive compensation for time spent furloughed, or working without pay, during shutdowns. Contractors haven't historically received similar benefits in past shutdowns. The provision in the spending bill is similar to legislation introduced by Rep. Ayanna S. Pressley, D-Mass., that has 71 cosponsors — all Democrats.

The measure would target the benefit to low-wage workers by capping it at $965 per week, or the equivalent of a $50,180 annual salary.

"Federal contractor employees perform jobs that are critical to the operations of our government, such as food service, security, and custodial work," Pressley and other House Democrats wrote in a March letter to appropriators urging support for contractor pay. "These are often low-wage jobs where the result of even one missed paycheck can lead to financial distress."

A formal scheduling announcement hadn't been made by House Democratic leaders. But the Rules Committee posted the measure on its website and set a Thursday deadline for submitting amendments, informing lawmakers the panel planned to meet the week of June 17 to consider a rule for floor debate. The House Appropriations Democrats' release indicated the bundle would be on the floor starting June 19.

A vote on the package would come after the expected passage of a nearly $1 trillion measure that includes the Defense and Labor-HHS-Education bills, though final votes on that behemoth could slip to next week. If both packages get passed, the House would have only two more of its bills remaining for the final week of June: Financial Services and Homeland Security. The House Appropriations Committee is scheduled to mark up those last two bills Tuesday.

The bundling strategy is an attempt by House Democratic leaders to speed up the appropriations process to avoid another government shutdown this fall, when the current fiscal year comes to an end. Passing all 12 bills in June would leave time, in theory, for negotiations with the Republican-controlled Senate before the new fiscal year begins on Oct. 1.

But the process could still stall because there is no bipartisan agreement on what overall discretionary spending limits should be. Without such a budget deal, Congress would have to cut discretionary programs by about 10 percent, or $125 billion, from this year’s enacted levels, because of spending caps imposed under a 2011 deficit reduction law.

Talks have begun to raise those spending caps, but reaching a deal could take weeks if not months. The senior leadership of both parties on Capitol Hill met with top White House officials on May 21 to try to expedite a deal, possibly encompassing a rise in the statutory debt ceiling as well. The talks broke up with no agreement but more meetings are likely.

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