WASHINGTON: While many federal workers go without pay and the government is partially shut down, hundreds of senior Trump political appointees are poised to receive annual raises of about $10,000 a year.
The pay raises for Cabinet secretaries, deputy secretaries, top administrators and even Vice President Mike Pence are scheduled to go into effect beginning January 5 without legislation to stop them, according to documents issued by the Office of Personnel Management and experts in federal pay.
The raises appear to be an unintended consequence of the shutdown: When lawmakers failed to pass bills Dec 21 to fund multiple federal agencies, they allowed an existing pay freeze to lapse. The pay freeze for top federal executives was enacted by Congress in 2013 and renewed each year since then. The raises will occur because that cap will expire on Saturday without legislative action, allowing raises to kick in that have accumulated over those years but never took effect. The raises start with salaries to be issued next week.
Cabinet secretaries would be entitled to a jump in annual salary from $199,700 to $210,700. Deputy secretaries would be entitled to a raise from $179,700 to $189,600. Others affected are under secretaries, deputy directors and other top administrators.
Pence’s pay is scheduled to rise from $230,700 to $243,500. He told reporters Friday afternoon he would turn down the raise. An administration official later said Pence’s staff believes he has to accept the raise during the shutdown and pay taxes on it, but will reimburse the Treasury or donate the pay to charity.
It was unclear whether the White House had the authority to stop the increases.
President Donald Trump was asked by a reporter Friday whether he would consider halting the raises, or halting them during the shutdown.
“I might consider that,” Trump said. “That’s a very good question.”
Later Friday, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said the pending pay raise “is another unnecessary by-product of the shutdown. The administration is aware of the issue and we’re exploring options to prevent this from being implemented while some federal workers are furloughed. Congress can easily take care of this by funding the government and securing our borders.”
However, the pay freeze has been an issue of dispute between Republicans and Democrats since at least October.
Trump offered no raise to rank-and-file civil servants for 2019, prompting an outcry from Democrats and federal employee unions. Republicans offered to scrap the executive pay raise in return for agreeing to a 1.9 per cent raise for civil servants. But those negotiations got stuck in a conference committee before the shutdown.
The government payroll system has yet to implement the pay raise for executives including the vice president, a congressional aide said. But given the hardships the budget impasse imposes on the rest of the country, “the optics of this are not pretty,” said Jeffrey Neal, a former personnel executive at the Department of Homeland Security and now a senior vice president at ICF.
Some 800,000 federal employees, out of a workforce of 2.1 million, are in unpaid status because of the partial government shutdown that began last month. Of those, about 380,000 have been furloughed. Many others are working without pay, and just before the New Year, President Trump ordered a pay freeze for most federal workers, working or not.
“I suspect the president isn’t aware of the disparity — that political appointees will get a pay raise and no one else will,” said John Palguta, former career executive in the federal government for human resources. “It’s going to be seen as terribly unfair.”
The government’s Office of Personnel Management did not respond to a request for comment.
The Democrat-led House included a continuation of the executive pay freeze in a bill the chamber passed late Thursday to reopen parts of the government without the funding for a border wall Trump wants. But that legislation is said to be dead on arrival in the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, says he will not vote on a bill the president will not sign.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, called the raises “outrageous” in a statement and called on McConnell to allow a Senate vote on the House measure, reopen government and provide retroactive pay to affected federal employees. The southern Maryland Democrat has more than 62,000 federal employees in his district.
McConnell’s office did not provide comment on the issue Friday.
The pay freeze’s expiration was discussed at length during a conference call Monday with officials at the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Personnel Management, who are meeting regularly to discuss issues caused by the shutdown. Some officials on the conference call, which included acting OPM Director Margaret Weichert, were worried about the public perception of the raises and discussed how to respond to questions about them, according to one participant, who requested anonymity to talk about internal discussions.
“It was definitely a ‘this is not going to look good’ situation,’” the participant said.
A senior administration official said the White House believes its likely Congress will act to reinstate the pay freeze when the federal government reopens.
The raises would cost taxpayers $300 million over 10 years, according to the Senior Executives Association, which represents the government’s approximately 7,000 highest-paid career officials.
The group’s executive director, Jason Briefel, called the freeze a “politically driven policy that over time makes it harder to bring good folks to government” and said extending it is detrimental to hiring top talent. But he acknowledged lifting it now “is definitely a slap in the face” to the rest of the federal workforce.
“At a time when more than 800,000 federal employees aren’t getting paid, it is absolutely outrageous that the Trump administration would even consider taking advantage of the shutdown to dole out huge raises to the vice president and its political appointees,” Rep. Nita Lowey, the new chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, said in an email.
The shutdown has infuriated the unions that represent federal workers.
“It is wonderful that the president has decided to lift the pay freeze for top executives and his political appointees: They deserve a pay adjustment, as do all the people who work under them,” David Cox senior, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 750,000 federal workers, said in an email. “Leadership is about the principle that ‘officers eat last.’ The administration should make sure that the rank and file receive a pay adjustment before their bosses do.”
The mechanics of getting the raises into appointees’ salaries also is complicated by the shutdown, federal personnel experts said. The adjustments must be processed by each agency’s human resources department, which depending on the agency, may not be staffed during the lapse. So some executives could see fatter salaries starting next week while others would have to wait until the government fully reopens.
“For a thing like this to happen, I don’t believe in coincidences,” said Randy Erwin, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees. “It certainly smells fishy, just as the federal workforce is being furloughed.”
The options for Congress include taking no action and allowing the raises to occur, approving the legislation passed by the House Thursday or passing a stand-alone measure to retain the pay freeze.
“It looks like Trump has protected his own appointees, and everyone else gets screwed,” Rep. Don Beyer, whose northern Virginia district has 77,000 federal workers, said in an interview. He suggested the president fix the problem by immediately issuing an executive order cancelling the raises.
“Late Friday, in response to a report on the raises in The Washington Post, Weichert issued a memo directing federal agencies to stand by and not move forward with the increases until Congress acts “to provide clarity on the matter.”