Another opportunity lies just ahead for President Trump to advocate for a freeze on federal pay rates in 2019, although unlike in recent years, the White House’s position on a raise will be actively considered in Congress in the later months of the year.
Under the 1990 federal pay law, if by the end of August Congress has not legislated a figure for the following year’s pay raise–it hasn’t so far and it won’t by then because the House is in recess through Labor Day–the President can issue a message to Congress stating his intent to set a figure by default in case no figure is legislated by the end of the year.
Each year prior to this year, since the end of the three-year freeze over 2011-2013 Presidents have issued such a message restating their original raise proposal for the following year. That message essentially prevents a much larger raise from taking effect by default if Congress does not act by the end of the calendar year.
Last year, for example, Trump reiterated his original proposal for a 2018 raise averaging 1.9 percent, saying that the 1990 law otherwise would automatically trigger a raise averaging above 26 percent at a cost of $26 billion. A 1.9 percent raise ultimately was paid in January of this year, since last year Congress continued a practice of remaining silent on the raise, allowing the President’s figure to take effect.
This year the House set out to follow that same pattern of consenting to the White House position through silence; it included no language regarding a raise in a key spending bill, the general government appropriations bill. However, unlike in the past when the Senate did the same, this time it voted to set a figure: 1.9 percent, to be split as 1.4 percent across the board and the funds for the other 0.5 percentage points divided up as locality pay.
In position statements on those bills during House and Senate floor voting, the White House reiterated call for a freeze–although it did not threaten to veto the Senate bill over its provision for a raise.
The late-August presidential messages commonly are interpreted by publications without extensive knowledge of federal pay and benefits as the last word on federal pay for the following year. However, any later action by Congress that is signed by the President–such as in an individual appropriations bill or a catchall budget–would override the default figure.
The House and Senate still must work out the differences over the pay raise and other issues in the general government spending bill. No such conference can even begin until September and most likely would not conclude for some time afterward. With the start of the new fiscal year just ahead in October and none of the regular spending bills close to enactment, Congress most likely will again will move to temporarily extend spending authority to buy more time.