Congress could take several different approaches to take the two-year federal pay freeze from proposal to law. But no matter their paths, Stan Collender, director of federal budget policy for Qorvis Communications and a federal budget expert, said it’s as much of a sure thing as one will find on Capitol Hill.
“Except for members with large federal employee constituencies, this is a pretty easy vote for most members,” he said. “The President, Congressional Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats all support this. Not only was [Monday’s] announcement not surprising, it was predictable. Federal pay and federal employment are some of the biggest targets for symbolic reasons. You never say never in politics, but this is as sure as you get.”
Collender said lawmakers could add a provision to a continuing resolution or an omnibus spending bill, or pass a separate bill to limit the amount of money for federal salaries.
“The easiest thing is to include language in a continuing resolution that would last for the full year,” he said.
President Obama proposed on Monday freezing federal employee at civilian agencies and non-servicemen and women pay for two calendar years starting in 2011.
Support for the pay freeze has been wide among many members of Congress. Congressmen Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and Sens. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) came out strongly in favor of the freeze.
Other members-mostly those with large numbers of federal employees in their districts-expressed concern.
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) told the Dorobek Insider Tuesday that the proposal was “not a thoughtful approach,” and sends a negative message, perhaps inadvertently, about the federal workforce, feeding into the “demagogic rhetoric” in some midterm races.
The freeze also came up Tuesday during President Obama’s meeting with lawmakers at the White House.
“Several members mentioned, on both sides, that — spending and the deficit obviously was something that was talked about quite a bit, and that we’re going to have to make a series of decisions that might not be popular in individual districts, particularly around the Washington area, but that are hard decisions that ultimately have to be made if we’re going to make progress on our deficits and our debt,” said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs during his briefing Tuesday. “And the — several applauded the President for making that decision.”
The proposal also comes ahead of the Deficit Commission report that is scheduled to be issued Wednesday and voted upon by Friday. The draft report called for a three-year freeze as well as rolling discretionary spending back to fiscal 2010 levels for 2012, requires one percent cut in discretionary budget authority every year from 2013 through 2015 and cutting the federal workforce by 10 percent by 2015.
Collender said federal employee unions, employees and contractors should contact their Congressmen and Senators to express concern about the proposal.
“If they don’t explain the impact on them and their communities now, this will fly through,” he said. “The most important thing now is to talk to their representatives otherwise the freeze will definitely happen unless contractors, employees and employee families express their opinions.”
Collender added that employee unions are weakened because the Republicans will control the House and the Democrats have a smaller majority in the Senate.
“I’m sure they will energize their members and they may succeed in watering down the proposal to maybe only one year, but it’s going to be a tough year for unions to prevail,” he said.
In fact, John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said Monday that he doesn’t believe there is much of a chance to fight this proposal on Capitol Hill.
This would be the third time since 1986 that a President proposed freezing federal employee pay. In 1986, President Reagan and Congress agreed to a one-year freeze. In 1994, President Clinton tried to freeze federal pay, but Congress did not approve it.
Collender said this time around is much different for several reasons.
“This size of deficit is much bigger now than in 1994 and 1986,” he said. “The politics of this are in a much more take no prisoners pose. Washington has become much more bitter compared to 1994 and 1986 and much more partisan and federal employees and federal spending are a bigger target.”
Collender predicted that the pay freeze could be just the beginning of attempts by Republicans to cut federal employee benefits and spending on workers.
“If you look at the [Deficit Commission] initial proposal was there was a reduction in federal employment, reduction in contractors and a freeze in federal pay, it’s just the low hanging fruit from a political standpoint,” he said. “All of these things will likely be considered. And rather than wrapping them into a single vote where you get one headline for one day, my guess is there will be series of votes over the next year where it will look like Congress will try to make it look like they are trying to do more to reduce the deficit than if it happens all in one package.”
He added that everything from reducing employees’ pensions to reduction in force to a possible government shutdown or furloughs are possible over the next year.
“One of things Republicans have been talking about, for instance Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), is reducing spending on domestic side to 2008 levels,” Collender said. “If they try to do that, it will not happen before February when the fiscal year is already four months over and the only way to achieve that magnitude of savings would be through furloughs. In addition to that, we have to look at the possibility one or more government shutdowns during the year. I think it is likely it is a tactic that will appeal to Republicans even though it was such a disaster 15 years ago. Several of them said they would do it or threaten it over the debt ceiling. Unlike last time in 1995-96, it’s not clear to me federal employees who are not working because of a shutdown will be paid retroactively.”
A lot of these other non-pay freeze issues could test the White House in terms of how much political capital they are willing to spend on supporting employee unions and employees. Collender said if lawmakers try to cut spending to lower levels than the White House thinks needs to be cut, it will create a showdown with veto and possible shutdowns threats.
“Is the White House willing to take that risk?” he said. “Republicans may be happy not to have federal employees around. There will be a lot of behind the scenes work and political calculations.”
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