US budget deal set to protect civil servants from further pay cuts

By on 29/03/2018
Congress has fended off attempts by the administration to cut major programmes and squeeze funding for federal officials (Image courtesy: Martin Falbisoner).

Public sector unions have welcomed the new spending agreement signed into law last week, with American Federation of Government Employees National President J. David Cox Sr noting that the longer-term certainty over funding means that federal workers “can now breathe a sigh of relief”.

The US$1.3 trillion fiscal 2018 spending agreement leaves intact the pay and benefits of career civil servants, while also rejecting the deep budget cuts that the administration had sought for many federal agencies.

The so-called omnibus package sent to Trump by Congress on March 23, which includes the 12 spending bills funding the U.S. government, provides budget certainty for federal employees through to 30 September – the end of the 2018 US fiscal year. The deal also raises discretionary spending caps in existence since 2013 by US$200bn for both fiscal 2018 and 2019.

No news is good news

While deficit hawks have targeted federal pay and benefits on and off for the past decade, the budget deal doesn’t contain any language that would curtail federal retirement pension contributions from the government, affect their job security, or impede career employees’ annual pay raise.

Language in the 2,232-page omnibus, however, maintains the current pay freeze on the salaries of the vice president and senior political appointees.

Federal workers received an average 1.9% pay boost for 2018 in January, split between a 1.4% across-the-board increase and a 0.5% locality-pay bump. Congress went along with that Trump administration proposal separately late last year.

No renewed squeeze

“After years of assaults on the earned pay and benefits of federal employees that has already taken US$182bn for deficit reduction and other priorities, it was refreshing that America’s workforce did not again become America’s piggy bank in the recently passed omnibus legislation,” said Jason Briefel, executive director of the Senior Executives Association, a group that advocates for the government’s top civil servants.

“Respecting the nation’s civil servants and providing a fair and competitive total compensation package is critical for the federal government’s ability to attract and retain the workforce it needs in the 21st century,” he said.

Programmes protected

Jason Briefel, executive director of the Senior Executives Association, says respecting the nation’s civil servants is critical for the federal government’s ability to retain it’s workforce.

“We’re also happy that Congress has stepped up and pushed back on President Trump’s proposals to gut domestic programmes,” Cox said. “It’s vital that we fund the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Education – among many other vital services – and it’s great to see this budget reflect that.”

Trump, for instance, had proposed slashing the EPA’s budget in fiscal 2018 by 30%; Congress, however, kept the agency funded at roughly the same level of US$8bn in the omnibus.

Congress will revisit budget negotiations for fiscal 2019 when it returns on April 9 from a two-week recess.

Lawmakers must pass another spending bill before the beginning of October, when the new fiscal year begins. Because of the mid-term congressional elections in November, it’s likely to be a short-term funding mechanism.

But Technology Modernization Fund cut

The account created by the 2017 Modernizing Government Technology Act to help upgrade agencies’ outdated IT systems received US$100m in the omnibus. That figure is much less than the US$250m the law authorised in appropriations for the fund for fiscal years 2018 and 2019. Agencies must submit proposals to the board managing the fund for IT modernization projects; it remains to be seen how the US$100m appropriated for fiscal 2018 will be allocated.

However, the omnibus allocates additional funding for some individual IT projects at various agencies, including US$782m for an electronic health record system at the Veterans Affairs Department that will sync with the Defense Department’s new records system.

Controls on training and reorganisation

The budget agreement also limits the extent to which agencies can pursue major reorganisations of personnel and operations – one of the administration’s top initiatives across government, particularly at the EPA and the departments of Interior and State.

Lawmakers included language restricting or prohibiting the use of funds to reassign offices or employees at certain agencies without congressional approval or advance notice.

And Congress weighed in on training for federal workers. The omnibus prohibits funds in the bill from, among other things, being used for any training that “does not meet identified needs for knowledge, skills, and abilities bearing directly upon the performance of official duties” and “is offensive to, or designed to change, participants’ personal values or lifestyle outside the workplace.”

The omnibus provides some financial stability after a period during which Congress had cobbled together five short-term spending measures to keep the government afloat at fiscal 2017 levels for the first six months of fiscal 2018. There were two brief funding lapses in January and February when Capitol Hill couldn’t overcome legislative impasses before their self-imposed deadlines.

About Kellie Lunney

Kellie Lunney is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist who has written about domestic policy and politics for nearly 20 years. She’s currently a reporter for E&E News, where she covers Capitol Hill, energy and the environment. Before that, she reported on management in executive agencies and the federal pay and benefits of US career civil servants for Government Executive for over a decade. Her work has been cited by Science, the Washington Post, Politico, and the Atlantic Wire, among other new publications. Follow her on Twitter: @klunney.

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