A legislative proposal has the White House and much of Congress now at odds, and it’s got nothing to do with the Supreme Court or the border wall. It’s over whether federal employees will get a pay raise next year. President Trump’s declaration last month of a “pay freeze” for federal workers is stirring dissent in the House and Senate, where even Republican lawmakers are breaking with the president and insisting that federal workers get the pay raise that they were promised.

“These scheduled pay raises are overdue for our hardworking federal employees and provide incentives to recruit and retain a strong federal workforce,” wrote Rep. Scott Taylor (R-Va.) and a group of House Republican colleagues in a letter to Trump earlier this month. In their letter, they urged the president to “reconsider” his plan to freeze pay, adding: “Our federal civilian workforce deserves this pay raise.”

trump stirs controversy with federal pay freeze

The controversy began August 31, when Trump wrote a letter to Congress saying that he intends to nix federal-employee pay raises that were due to take effect in January 2019. They include a 2.1% across-the-board salary increase for almost all civilian employees, as well as various locality pay increases averaging 25.7%. Both kick in automatically unless the White House and Congress enact an alternative pay raise, under the 1990 Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act.

The Senate had approved an alternative on August 1, when it included a 1.9% pay raise for 2019 for most civilian federal employees in a “minibus” federal spending bill. The bill passed the chamber by a whopping 92-6 margin.

The House has its own version of the minibus bill, and the federal pay raise is nowhere in it. But a conference committee consisting of lawmakers from both houses is meeting to iron out this and other differences. As of September 10, all the committee’s senators and nearly half its House representatives said that they support the Senate version, pay raise and all.

Just last week, the committee released a compromise minibus bill that funds a 1.9% pay raise for employees of departments of Defense, Education, and Health and Human Services, all “contingent” on lawmakers approving across-the-board pay raises for the rest of the federal workforce in other bills.

They are still negotiating a separate minibus bill that includes an across-the-board pay raise. Discussions continue, but most committee members appear to support it.

will external forces make trump change his mind?

Trump could veto any of these bills. But so far, the White House has not threatened to do so. And Trump himself has indicated that he is willing to budge on the issue, telling supporters at one recent rally that he will “study” his decision on the pay freeze.

The episode is playing out amid two simultaneously occurring trends. The first is plummeting morale throughout the federal workforce, which has seen mass retirements and staff reductions of historic proportions in the last few years. The second is a fast-growing U.S. economy that has managed to produce a modest wage gain for the private-sector U.S. workforce of 2.7% from last year.

Now, inflation more than cancels that 2.7% wage growth out, as the Los Angeles Times rightly noted. But even 2.7% is better than the 0% that federal workers would receive if it were up to Trump. Or, for that matter, the 1.9% that federal workers will get if the conference committee has the final say.

Even with a pay hike, the federal workforce is in jeopardy

Even without a pay freeze, many federal employees are already looking for better-paying prospective careers outside government. A Congressional Budget Office (CBO) survey last year found that federal employees who hold master’s degrees or higher – roughly 29% of the federal workforce, according to the CBO – make about 24% less than their private-sector counterparts, even after accounting for federal employment benefits.

Federal workers with bachelor’s degrees or less do tend to out-earn private-sector employees of comparable educational levels, according to the same surveys. But if federal wages freeze while wages outside government continue to grow, albeit slowly, it may be only a matter of time before these workers lose their earnings advantage, as well. When that occurs, any number of the hundreds of thousands of personnel who staff our public parks, museums, and social services offices may all leave for the private sector. And who could blame them?

Rep. Taylor and other Republican lawmakers may back Trump on most issues. But they also acknowledge, with their Democratic colleagues, that federal pay needs to at least keep pace with the private sector if the federal government is to keep attracting and keeping the employees that it needs. And as such, they are willing to challenge their president and stand for government pay.

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Rick Docksai is a Department of Defense writer-editor who covers defense, public policy, and science and technology news. He earned a Master's Degree in Journalism from the University of Maryland in 2007.