WASHINGTON (NYTIMES, WASHINGTON POST) - The Trump administration announced late Friday (Jan 4) that it would freeze a pay raise for Vice-President Mike Pence, members of the Cabinet and other high-ranking political appointees in the light of the partial government shutdown.
The high-level officials were positioned to receive a raise of about US$10,000 a year – which was to go into effect Saturday – as 800,000 federal employees were entering their third week without pay.
The increases were the result of Congress’ failure to renew a long-standing freeze on raises for high-ranking officials and political appointees. An extension of the freeze was included in the spending Bills funding multiple government agencies that were not acted on before the expiration on Thursday of the 115th Congress.
But on Friday night, the Office of Personnel Management announced that “it would be prudent for agencies to continue to pay these senior political officials at the frozen rate until appropriations legislation is enacted that would clarify the status of the freeze.”
The decision came during an unexpected optics issue for the Trump administration: While correctional officers, Transportation Security Administration agents and other federal employees work without pay during the government shutdown, Pence’s annual salary would have jumped to US$243,500 from US$230,700.
Cabinet secretaries who were paid US$199,700 a year would have seen their annual pay rise to US$210,700. It also came after The Washington Post reported the potential raises.
The administration appeared to be aware of the perception problem and was trying to avoid it. Asked at his news conference Friday if he would freeze the raises during the shutdown, President Donald Trump said he “might consider that.”
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, later explained that the administration was “exploring options to prevent this from being implemented while some federal workers are furloughed” and described the situation as “another unnecessary byproduct of the shutdown” that she said could be remedied by Congress.
The guidance issued Friday night by Margaret Weichert, the acting director of the Office of Personnel Management, stated that the 2018 pay freeze for certain political officials would be “generally applicable in applying the pay freeze in 2019.”
Weichert said in her memo that her department would put forward new guidance if and when Congress took action on the issue.
Democratic lawmakers, who are at an impasse with Trump over his vow to not reopen the government without funding for a wall along the Southwest border, earlier Friday put pressure on the Trump administration, criticising the potential raises.
Rep. David Price of North Carolina described increasing the salaries of high-ranking officials during a shutdown as “astounding and the height of hypocrisy.” Rep. Nita Lowey of New York said that the Bill passed by the House on Thursday to reopen the government would also block what she described as “lavish raises.”
That Bill, however, is viewed as a nonstarter in the Republican-controlled Senate.
The Government Accountability Office had also received questions about whether the raises could move forward but responded that the issue was, so far, an unresolved legal question, according to a person familiar with the conversation.
The salary increases would have come as the leaders of some of the unions representing federal workers criticised Trump for what they say is a lack of empathy for the financial problems facing federal employees who have not been paid during the shutdown.
At his news conference Friday, Trump confirmed that he had told congressional leaders that he was willing to keep the government closed, potentially, “for a very long period of time, months or even years.”
The freeze on raises for senior-level appointees was a measure that was initiated by House Republicans in 2013, during the Obama administration, as part of a financial services Bill. Under the provision, high-ranking officials would have their pay rates frozen, even though the federal schedule of pay raises would increase. That law has been renewed every year since.
In March 2018, Republicans tried to end the freeze, but Democrats succeeded in their efforts to keep it.
The Democrat-led House included a continuation of the executive pay freeze in a Bill the chamber passed late on 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 on Friday.
The pay freeze's expiration was discussed at length during a conference call on 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.
A senior administration official said the White House believes it is likely Congress will act to reinstate the pay freeze when the federal government reopens.
The raises would cost taxpayers US$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.
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 Sr., national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 750,000 federal workers, said in an e-mail.
"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."