Fedweek

Congress returns next week to face decisions—which it put off while on an extended recess for campaigning—a 2019 January federal employee raise and on funding numerous agencies for the rest of the current fiscal year.

Legislators have scheduled only four working weeks before adjourning for the year, taking off Thanksgiving week, although such schedules commonly slip as a Congress nears its end and there is a last-minute push to get proposals enacted. When the new Congress convenes in January, all legislation would have to start over from square one.

Regardless of how late into the year Congress goes, it will have to decide whether to agree to a 1.9 percent average federal employee raise, as favored by the Senate, or to a pay freeze, as favored by President Trump and initially by the House. A conference on a bill including the general government appropriations started but did not finish before the recess, with the last word at the time that the House was willing to agree to the Senate position, although on the condition that a longstanding freeze on political appointee salaries be lifted. Some Democrats have objected to that. The White House meanwhile has remained silent, although it has not threatened to veto a bill containing a raise.

The Senate language is designed to make a raise easier to adopt by not adding money to agency budgets to pay for it; agencies instead would have to absorb the cost out of their general operating budgets. However, unlike in recent years when Congress could allow a raise to occur by remaining silent, because an increase would be paid by default, this year legislators must specify a figure if a raise is to be paid. That’s because President Trump set a freeze as a default. There has been no discussion of a number other than 1.9 percent, although employee organizations have continued to advocate the 2.6 percent that military personnel will receive.

The general government bill—which also funds financial agencies, the IRS and the central management agencies—is one of four that have been tied together to make them easier to enact. The others cover Agriculture, FDA and related agencies; Interior and environmental agencies; and Transportation, HUD and related agencies.

Those agencies, along with DHS; State and related agencies; and Commerce, Justice and science agencies, are operating under temporary funding that expires December 7. Some action, if only another temporary extension, will be needed to prevent a partial shutdown of those agencies. The stand-alone bill for DHS seems the most likely to hit a roadblock, since funding for immigration-related issues in that measure has been a sticking point all year.

Other departments and agencies, as well as Congress and its agencies, have full-year funding and would not be threatened by any funding lapse for those currently on temporary funding.