Obama's plan to freeze federal salaries gets a cold reception

For Immediate Release:

November 29, 2010

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By Joe Davidson
Washington Post

Winter is not officially here yet, but a freeze is falling over the federal workplace.

Don't expect a spring thaw.

Unlike Mother Nature, who provides warm conditions at regular intervals, Uncle Sam plans to freeze federal salaries for two years.

It's a move that leaves federal employees cold.

"This would save $2 billion over the rest of this fiscal year and $28 billion in cumulative savings over the next five years," President Obama said Monday.

"I did not reach this decision easily. This is not just a line item on a federal ledger. These are people's lives. They're doctors and nurses who care for our veterans; scientists who search for better treatments and cures; men and women who care for our national parks and secure our borders and our skies; Americans who see that the Social Security checks get out on time, who make sure that scholarships come through, who devote themselves to our safety. They're patriots who love their country and often make many sacrifices to serve their country."

His kind words didn't pacify federal union leaders who have been among Obama's most ardent supporters. With the strained relations they had during the administration of George W. Bush still fresh in their minds, they continue to support Obama.

Nonetheless, his plan to freeze federal salaries is certainly the biggest blow to that relationship since he's been in office.

John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, was so upset, you'd think he was talking about a Republican.

"This proposal is a superficial panic reaction to the draconian cuts his deficit commission will recommend," Gage said. "A federal pay freeze saves peanuts at best and, while he may mean it as just a public relations gesture, this is no time for political scapegoating. The American people didn't vote to stick it to a VA nursing assistant making $28,000 a year or a border patrol agent earning $34,000 per year."

Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said she is "very disappointed with the White House's position" and plans to make an end run around the president.

We "intend to explore all of our options, including working with Congress to overturn it," Kelley added.

Republicans were pleased, but they didn't want to sound too happy with something their arch-rival proposed. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the top Republican on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said the freeze "is both necessary and, quite frankly, long over-due."

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), the ranking Republican on the committee's federal workforce panel, called it "a step in the right direction. However, the proposal does not appear to curb step increases. If that is the case, this announcement is nothing more than a hollow press release. At the end of the day, this policy will serve only to frustrate current employees while doing nothing to curb our debts."

The freeze won't make federal employees destitute. They were not about to get rich off the 1.4 percent raise Obama earlier proposed, which was just above freeze levels anyway. But they don't like being singled out.

Make no mistake. Federal employees recognize the need for all to participate in efforts to cut the nation's deficit. They agree with the president when he said: "These are also times where all of us are called on to make some sacrifices. And I'm asking civil servants to do what they've always done - play their part."

Their concern is they are doing more than their part.

The deficit "was not borne out of rising and exorbitant federal employee salaries, and federal employees should not face an unfair burden simply because they carry out the work of this country," said Jessica Klement, government affairs director of the Federal Managers Association.

On the fairness point, Obama emphasized that the "freeze does not apply to the men and women of our Armed Forces, who . . . bear enormous burdens with our nation at war." But it does apply to the many federal civilians who are risking their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Thousands of civilian federal employees are serving alongside our armed forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and other dangerous posts around the world," said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.). "While the president, justifiably, is not proposing to freeze military pay, federal employees working in those war zones and facing the same risks of death and injury should receive the same respect."

Furthermore, including military personnel, except for those at war, "would have produced significantly more savings," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.). "It would have also added an element of fairness: there has been parity between civilian and military pay raises for 22 of the past 28 years in which raises were authorized."

Excluding civilians in war zones from the freeze makes good sense. The parity argument also is a good one and has tradition on its side. But as Jeffrey Zients, the Office of Management and Budget's deputy director for management, said, "With the members of the military deploying on a moment's notice, it does not make sense to set pay based on their location at a specific moment in time."