President Trump has signed a budget measure (P.L. 116-37) that could ease the way for payment of a federal raise in January but the timing of the process could mean that Trump first will move to provide no raise.
The agreement raises spending caps set by an earlier law although much work still lies ahead to translate the new topline amounts into specific spending bills for the fiscal year that starts October 1. It’s common for temporary funding extensions to be needed for at least some of the 12 regular appropriations bills before the budget for a year is settled. That could well be the cases since both the House and Senate are now on recess until the week after Labor Day.
Among those bills is the general government measure. The House has passed its version providing for a 3.1 percent GS raise in January to be split a 2.6 percentage points paid across the board and the remainder paid in differing amounts by locality; wage grade employees would get the same increase paid to GS employees in a given area. The Senate has not drafted its bill, although employee organizations are hopeful that it will agree to the House language and that Trump ultimately will consent to a raise, as he has his first two years in office.
However, for the meantime a mechanism in federal pay law may again play out. Under that provision, if Congress has not enacted a raise for the following January by the end of August, the president issues a letter stating his intent to set an “alternative” raise. That raise would be alternative to what otherwise would be a large raise paid automatically under that law – and that would take effect by default if no raise is enacted into law by year’s end.
In that message, presidents consistently restate the recommendation they made in their initial budget proposal early in the year. President Trump has done that in both of his prior years. In August 2017 he restated his intent to provide a 1.9 percent raise for January 2018, which ultimately was paid, and last August he restated his intent to freeze salary rates. Because of the prolonged budget standoff through the fall and into the winter, that freeze took effect in January of this year, only to be later overridden by an average 1.9 percent raise, paid retroactive to the first pay period of the year, in the budget measure that eventually ended that standoff.
The administration’s budget proposal of early this year again called for a freeze, and with now no chance that Congress will act otherwise before the end of this month, a similar freeze message is virtually certain. As always, a later budget measure containing a raise that is passed by Congress and signed into law by the president would override that message.
However, the message commonly is misinterpreted as the last word on a raise for the following year by publications and websites that lack a full understanding of the process.