President Donald Trump canceled annual pay raises for federal employees last year — and now members of Congress are trying to restore them.
On Wednesday, the House passed a bill that would give civilian workers a 2.6 percent cost-of-living increase for 2019. They were supposed to receive an automatic 2.1 percent pay bump starting in January, but Trump canceled it in December — just days after he shut down the government and withheld paychecks for nearly 800,000 employees.
Furloughed employees are now back at work, waiting for their first paycheck of the year and back pay to cover the ones they missed during the 35-day shutdown. But Trump’s decision to reopen the government for three weeks — without funding for a border wall— did not include a raise.
That means roughly 2 million people won’t get an annual pay raise this year, including Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.
Members of Congress, though, think they can still make it happen. Senate Democrats introduced another bill on Tuesday calling for the 2.6 percent raise, which would match the increase given to military service members. So far, the bill has no Republican support, but GOP Senate leaders had previously been willing to give employees a 1.9 percent raise.
“Congress can override, and Congress should override this executive order,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD), who represents a district with thousands of federal workers.
Whether or not they can make a deal with the Senate is up in the air, and the raise may end up as part of the negotiations over the next government spending bill, which Congress must pass by February 15 to keep the government open. The main barrier to a deal, however, is the president, who has shown little to no concern for the impact his decision would have on the livelihoods of American workers.
Trump says there is no money for raises
The president first announced the across-the-board pay freeze in August, saying the federal government couldn’t afford the annual 2.1 percent increase, which allows workers’ salaries keep up with the cost of living.
Trump’s decision was swiftly met with widespread outcry from labor unions that represent federal workers, calling it “a slap in the face.”
The president is allowed to cancel raises in the event of a “national emergency or serious economic conditions affecting the general welfare,” and past presidents have eased up on scheduled raises for federal workers. President Barack Obama issued a two-year federal pay freeze in 2010 in response to the financial crash. And in 2012 and 2013, House Republicans stepped in to freeze pay for both federal workers and congressional staff.
But with today’s expanding economy, it’s hard to justify withholding raises from 2 million government workers, most of whom live outside of the nation’s capital. But Trump tried anyway.
In a letter to Congress, Trump said the raises were “inappropriate” in light of the government’s fiscal crisis. He said employees should only get raises based on performance and merit, disregarding increases in cost of living or other factors.
“We must maintain efforts to put our Nation on a fiscally sustainable course, and Federal agency budgets cannot sustain such increases,” Trump wrote in a letter he sent to Congress over the summer. The letter made no mention of the 2016 Republican tax bill, which slashed corporate tax rates and blew a hole in the federal budget.
Congress could override Trump’s decision, but it depends how many Republicans would be willing to break with him. On Wednesday, 29 House Republicans joined Democrats in voting for the raise.