An early marker has been set for the January 2020 (not 2019) general schedule pay raise, as the Labor Department has reported the employment cost index measure used for determining the across-the-board component of that raise under federal pay law.

Under that law, the ECI figure—a measure of growth in wages, not inflation—for the 12 months through each September is supposed to be used in setting the across the board portion in the White House’s subsequent budget proposal for the following fiscal year. A half percentage point is to be shaved off that amount and locality pay is supposed to be paid in addition, varying by locality. The unreduced figure for the measuring period was 3.1 percent, meaning an indicated across the board raise of 2.6 percent for January 2020, in this case.

That system never has worked as designed, however, due to the potential cost of the indicated locality raises and disagreements over the calculations underlying those figures. In some years the ECI number has played little to no role in a determination of a raise while in others the reduced ECI number alone has become the total raise, with locality pay carved out of it.

That happened for determining the 2018 raise, for which the reduced ECI figure came to 1.9 percent; President Trump recommended that total—divided into across the board and locality components—and Congress let it take effect by default. For 2019, the choice has come down to granting 1.9 percent average raise again, as advocated by the Senate, or imposing a freeze. That is to be decided in the post-election session of Congress as part of an appropriations bill in a House-Senate conference.

The debate over a raise for 2020 will begin with the White House’s annual budget recommendation, typically made in early February.