Pairing Up for Parity

Advocates of pay parity won the day Wednesday, when an overwhelming majority of House lawmakers voted for a resolution supporting military-civilian pay parity in 2005.

The vote, while symbolic and nonbinding, will give a huge boost to pay parity advocates later this year when House and Senate negotiators work out a spending plan for 2005. The Senate included a provision in its 2005 budget blueprint to boost military and civilian salaries by an average 3.5 percent.

In the floor debate Wednesday, supporters of the resolution stressed the tradition of pay parity, and pointed out that Congress has opted to give equal raises to military and civilian workers in 15 of the last 17 years. A bipartisan group of members spoke of fairness, the need to recruit the best and the brightest to federal work, and the valor of civil servants in the war on terrorism.

House Government Reform Committee Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., sponsored the resolution and spoke in its favor. Several other members, including Reps. Tom Cole, R-Okla.; Steny Hoyer, D-Md.; Danny Davis, D-Ill.; Henry Waxman, D-Calif.; Jim Moran, D-Va.; and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., joined him.

Opponents of the measure, led by Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla., argued that pay parity would take needed resources away from the military. They said that those who put their lives on the line should receive larger raises than desk workers, and added that by adopting an across-the-board raise for civil servants, it would be more difficult to advance civil service reforms to implement pay-for-performance systems.

Speaking on the floor Wednesday morning, Istook was joined by House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., and Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind., in opposing the resolution. They supported President Bush's plan to boost military pay by 3.5 percent and civilian salaries by 1.5 percent. The Davis resolution, if implemented, would cost the government about $2.2 billion, they argued.

Although presidents in recent years have routinely proposed different wage hikes for military and civilian workers, Congress has routinely opted for pay parity. The debate over the 2005 pay raise, however, has been more rancorous than in prior years, beginning with Istook's letter to House Republican leaders earlier this month arguing that a 3.5 percent raise for federal workers was too generous.

The House Budget Committee then voted 21-15 not to include a pay parity provision in its guidance to appropriators. Fifty Republican lawmakers signed the Istook letter, including Reps. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., Wally Herger, R-Calif.; Sam Johnson, R-Texas; Joseph Pitts, R-Pa.; and Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan. Pitts broke with the other signers and supported the pay parity resolution on Wednesday.

Istook noted that civil servants have received pay raises totaling 16.5 percent over the past four years, and that these raises far outstripped what the average private sector worker had received. Federal workers "not only enjoy better job security and benefits than the private sector, but they've already been getting dramatically higher raises than almost anyone else in the country," he said.

During the same period, rank-and-file members of Congress received raises that were 75 percent greater than those of the average civil servant. Proponents of the pay parity measure noted Wednesday that civil service raises have not been nearly as high as those recommended by the 1990 Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act, which sought to bring public sector pay into line with that of the private sector. The act has never been fully implemented.

Istook said he respected the work of civil servants, and noted that in his Oklahoma district the government has gone out of its way to provide better security at the rebuilt federal building after a 1995 bombing killed 168 people. Istook then argued against parity, saying that those who risk their lives for our country should be entitled to larger raises than those who work in offices.

Proponents of pay parity were quick to point out the irony. Davis noted that CIA agent Johnny Michael Spann was the first U.S. casualty of the war in Afghanistan. He pointed out that the federal wildland firefighters have died, and spoke of the death of Customs Inspector Thomas Murray, who died after inhaling toxic fumes during an inspection of a vessel at Louisiana's Gramercy port in 2001.

Advocates of parity were quick to brush off Istook's argument that no greater raise was needed because of the civil service's low, 1.6 percent attrition rate. "We have always had the most professional civil service with the greatest integrity in the world," said Moran. "We take it for granted."