By Christopher Lee
Military and civilian federal employees alike would get a 4.1 percent pay raise next year under a measure approved yesterday by the House Appropriations Committee.
The proposed raise, included in the House's Transportation/Treasury appropriations bill, rejects a plan sought by President Bush in February that would provide a two-tiered increase, giving the military a 4.1 percent increase and civilian employees 2 percent. Under Bush's plan, federal agencies could reward their best civilian workers with higher raises, drawing from a proposed $ 500 million "performance fund."
That was not good enough for a bipartisan swath of lawmakers, who argued that Congress should uphold the tradition of "pay parity" and grant equivalent increases in base pay to the military and the civil service.
"Federal civilian employees work every day to make this country a better and safer place for all Americans," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), who offered the pay raise amendment along with Reps. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) and Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.). "Whether it is protecting our borders, fighting deadly diseases, researching how to improve our children's education or working side by side with our military, federal employees' work often goes unnoticed despite the fact that it touches every American life."
Rep. Ernest J. Istook Jr. (R-Okla.) opposed the higher raise, arguing yesterday that, with a few exceptions such as the FBI and the CIA, civilian employees do not place themselves at risk in the same way the military does.
"The increases in federal civilian pay have been far above the cost of living under the Consumer Price Index or under the Social Security formula," he said. "At a time when we're running a $ 450 billion annual deficit, I felt we needed to make a different decision."
As with the 2003 pay raise, Congress is asking agencies to absorb the cost above the Bush request from their operating budgets. That would be about $ 2.1 billion in 2004.
"It comes out of the agencies' operating budget, so it has no impact on the deficit," Wolf said.
The Senate, which has not taken up the matter, typically follows the House lead on the annual pay raise for federal employees.
"Higher civilian pay is one of the key steps government can -- and must -- take to make it competitive in attracting and retaining in public service the most qualified and dedicated employees," said Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union.
A spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget declined to comment on the committee action. In a July 17 letter to appropriations leaders, OMB Director Joshua B. Bolten, Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao and Kay Coles James, director of the Office of Personnel Management, called a 2 percent raise for civilian employees a "responsible and sensible" policy that would not hurt federal recruitment efforts.
"Adding 2 percent to the across-the-board pay raise would not only fail to add value to the government's recruitment and retention efforts, it would also drain resources from agency budgets," they wrote.
The administration advocated a similar split last year, calling for a 4.1 percent raise for the military and, originally, 2.6 percent for civilians. Congress opted for a 4.1 percent increase for both, but Bush mostly stuck to his guns. He implemented a 3.1 percent civilian raise in January while lawmakers wrangled over delayed spending bills.
In February, Bush signed a 4.1 percent increase for all workers that was wrapped into a $ 397.4 billion package that Congress passed to finance most of the government.
Lawmakers and union officials say they do not expect a similar battle over pay this year. The pay increase passed in the House Appropriations Committee by a voice vote, they noted, and Chairman C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.) indicated that he supports the measure.
"I don't think the White House is going to fight us on it like they did last year," Moran said.
Bush's proposed $ 500 million "human capital performance fund" that agencies could tap to give higher raises to their top workers also took a hit. The panel included only $ 2.5 million for the fund.
Administration officials said the fund would be a first step toward changing a decades-old federal pay system that rewards workers for longevity rather than performance.