2017 Pay: Will No Congressional Pay Raise Impact Federal Employees?

By on May 19, 2016 in Pay & Benefits with 112 Comments
Alcee Hastings (D-FL)

Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-FL)

The Obama administration has issued its budget for fiscal year 2017. It includes a 1.6% average pay raise for federal employees that would start in January of 2017. Many readers have expressed their view that 1.6% is insufficient and that a raise of 5.3% would be more appropriate.

(Take this survey on Congressional and federal employee pay and express your opinion!)

It is too early in the annual pay setting process to know what will eventually emerge as the final 2017 pay raise for the federal workforce.  You can check out how much additional money you will receive in 2017 with a pay raise of 1% or 2% (or what it would be with a raise of 5% or 6% for extreme optimists) using this GS Pay Calculator.

Those who have been federal employees for a while know that the president’s budget recommendation is just a recommendation for now. The 1.6% proposed pay raise is not insignificant though. The past two years, the president’s pay raise proposal turned out to be the final amount of the raise. That is very likely to happen again this year as explained below.

But, whether you think 1.6% is sufficient, or you think that 5.3% is eminently reasonable, Members of Congress, who have a lot of influence over the annual federal pay raise, may believe that any pay raise is too much. Congress can, and often does, come up with a different amount for an annual federal pay raise. We will not know what Congress will decide to do for 2017.

Here’s why Congress may think a raise for the federal workforce is not justified. Members of Congress last received a pay raise in 2009. Some Congressional representatives are, at the very least, concerned about this.  Congress has voted not to receive a pay raise during this pay raise drought, probably because of the potential for a political backlash.

One Florida Democrat, Alcee Hastings, says the high cost of living in the District of Columbia makes it impossible for Americans of modest means to serve in Congress, and is causing increasing numbers to forego renting apartments in the city for sleeping in their offices while they’re in town.

A vote taken in the House this week approved a spending bill for the next fiscal year that would again freeze representatives’ pay—as has been done for every year since 2009. This provision of the bill funds administrative operations in Congress and includes office expenses and Congressional pay.

For readers who may want to compare their salary to the salaries for most members of Congress, the typical Congressional representative now makes $174,000. The Speaker of the House receives $223,500 per year. The Senate president pro tempore and the majority and minority leaders in both chambers make $193,400.

The last pay raise for Congress went into effect in 2009. At that time, the pay for most Members went up $4,700. That raised the pay from $169,300 to $174,000 where it still stands today.

During a rules committee hearing, Congressman Hastings also said “Members deserve to be paid, staff deserves to be paid and the cost of living here is causing serious problems for people who are not wealthy to serve in this institution.”

“We aren’t being paid properly,” he later added, according to Roll Call.

The Congressman has a point about elitism, apparently, as those without sufficient financial backing are unlikely to seek or win elected office to our exclusive club of Congressional representatives.  Some observers may think the point about “heading toward elitism” argues against a raise though.

A small majority of those in Congress are millionaires with 271 of the 533 members currently in office reaching the million dollar figure. The median net worth of a member of Congress was $1,029,505 in 2013 — a 2.5 percent increase from 2012 — compared with an average American household’s median net worth of $56,355.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, “It would take the combined wealth of more than 18 American households to equal the value of a single federal lawmaker’s household….”

A former Congressional Democrat from Virginia, James Moran, agreed with the sentiment that Members of Congress are underpaid and stressed his view after he had announced he was not running for re-election: “I think that the American people should know that members of Congress are underpaid. I understand it’s widely felt that they underperform, but the fact is that this is the board of directors for the largest economic entity in the world, and a lot of members can’t even afford to live decently when they are at their job in Washington.”

There are those in Congress who believe strongly Congress needs a raise in order to have a decent standard of living. Many, probably most in Congress, maintain a residence in the Washington, DC area as well as in their home state. USA Today, in writing about the 10 richest cities in America, ranks Washington as the third richest state and notes: “$108,092 would be a comfortable salary in the nation’s capital.”

What does this have to do with the pay raise for members of the federal civil service in 2017?

With at least some Republicans harbor a belief that the federal work force, certainly the unions representing federal employees, throw their support behind candidates from the opposing party. Others in Congress who believe strongly they deserve a pay raise for the first time in eight years will likely withhold support for a significant federal employee pay raise next year such as the 5.3% favored by readers in an earlier survey and also advocated by federal employee unions.

It’s an election year and elected representatives are not in business to alienate a large number of potential voters. This probably increases the likelihood the 1.6% raise in the budget proposed by President Obama will again become a reality.

Often, the most reliable predictor of future political action is to consider the safest and least controversial course of action. In this instance, if the institution chooses to do so, Congress can accept the President’s recommendation, as they have in the past two years, and avoid voting for or against a different raise for the federal workforce. But, if the sentiment in Congress happens to fall along the lines of: “We have done our part without a pay raise since 2009 and one year without a raise for federal employees isn’t a bad deal”, the budget negotiations could get more interesting (and costly) for federal workers.

What do you think? Should Congress get a pay raise in 2017? Will the Congressional pay freeze impact the decision on the pay for federal employees? Take this survey and express your opinion!

© 2016 Ralph R. Smith. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced without express written consent from Ralph R. Smith.

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About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources.

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