(Alex Wong/Getty Images – Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) testifies during a hearing before the House Homeland Security Committee March 10, 2011 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.)
You’d think the prospect of federal employees losing up to 20 percent of their salaries, on top of a basic pay rate freeze that has already lasted more than two years, would be enough.
House Republicans seem determined to pile on federal workers, as if to punish them for the government’s shaky fiscal situation. On Friday, the House is scheduled to vote on legislation that would extend the freeze until the end of 2013. It was originally scheduled to stop in December but now is set to expire at the end of March.
Then, a 0.5 percent pay raise through the end of the year will take effect unless stopped by legislation. The increase was ordered by President Obama. He has also proposed a 1 percent hike for 2014.
A procedural vote on the bill passed 227-192 on Thursday, almost strictly along party lines with Republicans in the majority. An important consolation for federal workers: If the bill gets through the House, it’s likely to die in the Senate.
As federal workers await the vote on final consideration, they also are waiting to see whether they will be forced to take unpaid leave days because of across-the-board budget cuts, known as the sequester, which could take effect in two weeks.
Many horror stories would result. For federal employees, “that would be extremely devastating,” said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.).
At Georgetown University last week, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said the Pentagon “will furlough as many as 800,000 DOD (Defense Department) civilians around the country for up to 22 days. They could face a 20 percent cut in their salary.”
Even if extending the pay freeze were the prudent thing to do, wouldn’t it be reasonable to wait to see whether the sequester is going to lay a heavy blow on the workforce?
Republicans aren’t waiting, but not all of them are in favor of hitting feds again.
Taking the lead in confronting his party-mates with persistent and robust opposition to this latest move on federal employees is Rep. Frank R. Wolf, a Virginia Republican who has a history of bucking his party’s attempts to knock federal compensation. He was the only Republican to vote “nay” on the procedural question, though Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) has spoken against the bill.
The veteran Wolf has been particularly active and vehement in opposition to the legislation, H.R. 273, sponsored by freshman Rep. Ron DeSantis, a Republican from Florida. This is his first piece of legislation — a conspicuous way to make his mark. In addition to rank-and-file workers, the bill also would freeze pay for members of Congress.
Wolf has badgered his Republican colleagues with 10 letters since Feb. 8 — “two a day, every day this week,” said his press secretary. All of the letters say “vote no,” and most remind the representatives that 85 percent of federal employees are outside of the Washington metro area.
The first letter was especially strong and pointed.
“Let’s be honest,” Wolf wrote, “this bill is nothing more than a political stunt that targets the hardworking, dedicated men and women of the civil service, who have already had their salaries frozen for more than two years. Everyone knows they are an easy target. But we are kidding ourselves if we think we can balance the budget on the backs of federal employees. It’s a drop in the bucket towards deficit reduction and a hollow gesture absent meaningful mandatory spending reforms. Worse, this is just busywork as our economy faces the sequestration meat ax.”
All but one letter focused on particular groups of workers. Fifteen law enforcement and national security agencies that employ feds are cited in a letter that says, “This bill would freeze their pay for the third year.” Another says, “The nurses and doctors at the VA who care for our veterans and wounded warriors — they haven’t had a pay raise in more than two years. I know I’m not alone in wanting the best doctors and nurses to care for our veterans.”
These arguments do not sway DeSantis and other Republicans.
In an op-ed posted Thursday on The Hill’s Web site, DeSantis wrote: “My very first piece of legislation since being sworn into office, H.R. 273, will begin to tackle our fiscal deficiencies and Obama’s overspending head-on.
“When my bill goes up for a vote this Friday, the House will have the opportunity not only to prevent $11 billion in new spending,” he added, “but also to begin laying the foundation for economic growth, a fiscally sustainable future and a government that is less costly and more accountable to the people.”
Where DeSantis sees a ledger, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who opposes extending the freeze, sees people and service.
“Now there is a hostility towards government, but we ought not to have that hostility for government directed at those people we employ to do the services we ask them to perform,” he told the House Rules Committee on Wednesday. He cited food inspectors, health researchers, FBI agents and CIA officers, “some of them are at the point of the spear in harm’s way, and they are getting killed.”
“If we continue to demagogue federal employees, if we continue to use federal employees as a piñata,” he added, “you are going to find that people don’t want to work for this government . . . And America will lose, not the federal employees.”