Passage by the House of a spending bill (HR-3351) providing an average 3.1 percent raise in January for federal employees could set the stage for the kind of wrangling between the White House and the Congress that stretched the decision on this year’s raise past the start of the year.

The 3.1 percent figure would mirror what is under consideration for military personnel, in the name of “pay parity”—a practice that at one time was followed almost every year, although less so in recent years. The House language would not add money to the spending bill to cover the raise but instead would require agencies to absorb the cost out of their general overhead accounts—another commonly used tactic.


However, the 3.1 percent amount would represent the largest federal employee raise since the 3.4 percent average raise of 2010, a fact that already has drawn attention among conservatives on and off Capitol Hill. The raise would be broken out as 2.6 percent across the board and 0.5 percentage points divided as locality raises, yielding raises that likely would range from several tenths of a percentage point below 3.1 to several tenths above, varying by locality.

Although the Senate has not yet taken a position on the raise, it was that chamber that initiated the 1.9 percent average 2019 raise that was ultimately enacted. That was not finalized until February, however; the year started with no raise as the White House had desired.

This year the administration again wants a freeze, and events in the months ahead could play out in a similar way. If Congress hasn’t enacted a raise figure by the end of August—and with the Senate just starting its half of the work, there is almost no chance it will—the White House issues a letter stating its intent to set a raise by default if Congress doesn’t act by the end of the year. That letter repeats the White House’s original proposal from earlier in the year, in this case meaning that the default position for January 2020 will be a freeze.

While any raise that is enacted into law overrides the default figure, having that figure be zero requires that Congress and the White House agree on something else. That can be a difficult process, as last year proved, with an agreement to pay the 1.9 percent raise not reached until mid-February and making the raise retroactive to the first full pay period of the year. It was not until April or May that most employees received the raise and the retroactive boost, with some employees of a few agencies still reporting problems with the back pay part as recently as several weeks ago.