Pay raise not enough for feds

In a recent column, I reported that Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) had successfully amended the 1999 Treasury, Postal Service Appropriations Bill with the text of his legislation, the Federal Employees Pay Fairness Act (H.R. 3251). The language would have would maintained the Clinton administration's originally proposed paltry 3.1 percent federal pay raise in fiscal 1999. But for Year 2000 and beyond, it would have closed a loophole in current law that allows the president to propose pay adjustments that are lower than those called for by the Federal Employee Pay Comparability Act of 1990 (FEPCA). As I predicted, that amendment was dropped for "technical reasons."

Although various other members of Congress have also attempted to introduce legislation that would have increased the scheduled pay raise for federal workers, none of these efforts has been successful.

But recently, President Clinton changed his tune, if only slightly. He now wants federal employees to accept a meager 3.6 percent raise, an increase of 0.5 percent over what he originally proposed. This is still a smaller raise than called for by FEPCA, but Clinton can justify this if he deems that the country is facing an "economic emergency." Clinton would have us believe that this provision currently applies at a time when the economy is booming and the federal budget is enjoying a surplus. He has asked the American public to believe a number of things that no reasonable person should be asked to believe. This looks like another such attempt, and the Federal Managers Association (FMA) isn't buying it.

On Aug. 14, FMA national president Michael Styles wrote to Clinton, urging him to grant federal workers a 5.8 percent pay adjustment next year. The 5.8 percent figure he called for represents a proposal put forth by the major federal employee unions to re-establish the process of closing the 22.6 percent gap between federal and private salaries as required by law. "It has been frustrating for us to have to tell our employees that while our nation is looking at a $60 billion budget surplus and enjoying the strongest economy in a generation, we are unable to live up to our policy of paying America's work force comparable pay for comparable work because of 'serious economic conditions,' " Styles wrote.

I commend Styles for his restraint; his letter could have been much stronger.

But the administration did not stop there. It recently announced that it plans to overhaul the manner in which private-sector salaries are surveyed. The overhaul is supposed to make comparisons between federal and nonfederal salaries more accurate and easier to administer. But if you believe that, I have a bridge I would like to sell you.

There can be only one purpose for such an overhaul— to reduce federal employee pay. What other reason could there be? If the president wanted to raise federal employee pay, he would have stopped tampering with the law and given federal workers what they are entitled to.

Those who believed that a Democratic president would support federal employees have had their faith undermined by Clinton and his minions.

Congress is also at fault in this matter. When the president proposes a pay raise that is less than what is required by law, it must be approved by Congress before it can pass. And approve it Congress did— not just once, but whenever Clinton has asked. I am not sure at whom federal employees should be more angry.

Although certain congressmen profess to be "pro-fed," they are only paying lip service to this concept to appease their constituents. These so-called fed-friendly representatives come from districts that contain many federal employees, so naturally they go through the motions of appearing to want to help. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and federal employees have not received a decent raise in years. These representatives say they are still waiting for the administration to send them its proposal on closing the gap between federal and nonfederal salaries to Capitol Hill, so they can put the process back on track. Don't hold your breath.

Hoyer and Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.) are sponsoring legislation aimed at closing the loophole that allows the president to cite "serious economic conditions" as an excuse to grant pay adjustments lower than those called for by FEPCA. Specifically, the bills would redefine "serious economic conditions" to mean two consecutive quarters of negative growth in the gross domestic product. As reported above, this same legislation previously failed to survive as an amendment in the House. It is even more difficult to pass such legislation as a separate bill. Who wants to bet that this legislation gets bottled up in some committee or cannot be considered because of some technicality?

FEPCA calls for closing 70 percent of the disparity between federal and nonfederal pay by 1999. The administration's 1998 budget provides $2.5 billion for a pay adjustment of 3.6 percent for 1.8 million general schedule workers in 1999. It follows that federal workers would need a 13 percent pay increase in 1999 to achieve FEPCA's long-term goals. That does not appear likely.

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who may be one of the few members of Congress who is indeed a friend of federal workers, was instrumental in ensuring that the Senate version of the 1999 Treasury, Postal Service and General Government Appropriations Bill called for a 3.6 percent pay adjustment. Perhaps Stevens' proposal is what caused Clinton to increase his recommendation.

But despite Stevens' efforts, it remains questionable whether any fed-friendly legislation will pass or even whether the 3.6 percent figure will prevail. Its chances have improved, but it is far from being a done deal. What can you do about it? Probably not very much. You can write your congressional representatives and senators, but they will probably finesse the problem in such a way that you will not feel it is their fault. But it is.

-- Bureaucratus is a retired federal employee who contributes regularly to Federal Computer Week.

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