With Senate Back in Session, Pay Raises Could Finally Be Untangled

For Immediate Release:

January 20, 2004

Contact:Stephen Barr

The Washington Post

The Senate returns to work today -- hopefully ready to plunge into debate on an $820 billion omnibus spending bill for fiscal 2004 that would bump up this year's pay raise for the government's white-collar workers.

The spending bill -- which would provide General Schedule employees with an average raise of 4.1 percent -- has been snarled in politics and policy disputes over mad cow disease, media ownership and overtime compensation rules.

Because it was carried over from last year, federal employees started the year under PresidentBush's pay order: a 1.5 percent across-the-board raise and a small increase in their "locality pay" adjustment.

In the Washington-Baltimore area, the base pay and locality adjustment amounted to 2.12 percent. Nationally, most GS employees received a 1.94 percent raise this month.

Once Congress sorts out the omnibus bill and clears the raise, GS employees will be in line for retroactive pay. It may take several weeks before retroactive pay shows up on employee pay stubs, because most agencies will have to reprogram payroll systems and recalculate retirement and Thrift Savings Plan contributions.

The return of Congress also marks the start of the next budget cycle, which will likely trigger renewed debate on federal pay, public-private job competition and hearings on the U.S. Postal Service workforce.

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), who played a pivotal role in pushing a 4.1 percent raise for civil service employees last year, has said he hopes Congress will act promptly on the omnibus bill. "Federal employees, who generally earn less than their counterparts in private industry, have a right to know what their paychecks will be so they can plan their household budgets," he said in a statement issued New Year's Eve.

Hoyer said that as he has in the past, he would urge the White House to support "pay parity" increases between the military and the civil service when the administration submits its fiscal 2005 budget plan early next month. Congressional aides predict that the Pentagon will seek at least a 3.5 percent raise for the troops next year.

There will likely be other pay issues that federal employees will find worth following, partly because new "pay banding" and pay-for-performance systems under review at the departments of Defense and Homeland Security could be picked up as models by other federal agencies.

By some accounts, Defense and Homeland Security may announce their pay plans in the next few weeks, and those will likely receive substantial scrutiny from congressional committees, unions and other employee groups.

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, and Rep. Jo Ann S. Davis (R-Va.), the civil service subcommittee chairman, plan to monitor the rollout of the new Defense and Homeland Security systems. Jo Ann Davis plans to keep close tabs on the Office of Personnel Management's progress in writing a report on federal law enforcement pay and how disparities among forces can be eliminated.

Tom Davis and Rep. John M. McHugh (R-N.Y.) will begin the first of three hearings on the U.S. Postal Service this month. The goal is to come up with legislation to help it get on a steady financial footing to survive the Internet age. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, and Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) plan to work together on similar legislation. Collins, who held postal hearings last year, plans to continue them with an early February examination of the postal workforce -- about 800,000 full- and part-time employees.

Collins also plans to continue pushing for a crackdown on "diploma mills" that provide bogus degrees, which some federal employees may have used to get hired or obtain promotions. The General Accounting Office is preparing a report, and Collins may hold hearings in coming months, her spokeswoman said.