The annual DoD authorization bill up for a House vote this week (HR-5515) would provide uniformed military personnel a 2.6 percent raise in January, but it’s questionable whether that would improve chances of federal employees getting a raise of that size—or even any—along with them.
For many years, the military raise—which typically emerges first in the Capitol Hill budget process—set a marker for the federal employee raise in the name of “pay parity.” The result typically was to boost the federal raise to the higher amount slated for military personnel. However, that pattern was broken starting with 2011, the first year of a three-year federal employee salary rate freeze during which military personnel continued receiving annual raises. In the following three years federal employees received raises, but smaller than those paid to the military.
Pay parity resurfaced in late 2016 when President Obama invoked it in boosting a 1.6 percent raise that had been on track for federal employees for 2017 to 2.1 percent, after a law was enacted to grant the higher figure to the military.
President Trump last year refused to follow suit, however, when in a similar situation employee organizations asked him to sweeten the 2018 federal raise to the 2.4 percent enacted for the military; instead he kept the raise at the 1.9 percent that had been on the table all year. Earlier this year he recommended 2.6 percent for the military for 2019 but a freeze for federal employees—the latter characterized as a tradeoff for his recommended $1 billion fund to be paid out to top performers and in hard-to-fill positions.
The first solid signal of any intent by Congress to create such a fund could come as soon as this week as a House Appropriations subcommittee begins writing a spending bill covering general government accounts. That bill also is traditionally the vehicle for Congress to take a position on a federal employee raise for the upcoming year. Since the pay freeze of 2011-2013, Congress has allowed the President’s recommended raises each year to take effect by default, by taking no position on a raise—a strategy that equally could be used to allow a proposed freeze to take effect.