Patriotism, Pay, and Parity

Pay parity is again the political mantra for this year’s debate on the annual pay raise for federal employees.

With troops fighting and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan, most Americans, including those in Congress, want to show support for the military. With the death toll rising among our troops in the Middle East, it has become harder to recruit and retain military personnel, presumably because the thought of going to a place that is hot, has a lot of sand, and where people are trying to kill Americans doesn’t seem like the stuff dreams are made of. Even male 18-year old high school graduates who have grown up enjoying the violence of computer games have second thoughts about knowingly putting themselves in a position where they can be blown up by a suicide bomber.

The result has been an increase in pay and benefits for military personnel. More money is needed to attract new recruits and keep those that are already there.

And, while there are numerous federal civilians and contractor employees also putting themselves in danger in the never-ending turmoil of the Middle East, most Americans don’t think of civilian feds in the same way. The federal employees they meet and know are working in the Post Office, the Social Security Administration or the Internal Revenue Service. They read about federal employees prosecuting criminals or chasing after bad guys who have ripped off the government in some way.

With this background, “pay parity” has become a political ritual in Washington in the annual debate over how much additional money federal employees should get in the next year.

“Pay parity” in this scenario refers to giving military and civilian employees an equal percentage raise in the next year. Generally, the debate follows along these lines: First, The president proposes to give military personnel a pay raise of 3.5% or so and a pay raise to civilians of approximately 2%. Second, Congress passes a bill that endorses the concept of giving both military and civilian personnel the same percentage increase. Third, after politicians on both sides of the issue issue statements that they think will play well in their home districts, both military and civilian personnel end up getting the same percentage pay increase.

This year the political dance is playing out the same way.

President Bush proposed a pay raise of 3.1% for military personnel and 2.3% for federal employees under the General Schedule. The House of Representatives version of the Transportation, Treasury and Housing appropriations bill includes a provision providing for 3.1% raise for military and civilian personnel.

Pay parity is always backed by Congressional representatives who have large numbers of federal employees as constituents. The debate doesn’t get much play in the media outside of these areas but last year one Congressman took the issue to heart and worked to derail the issue arguing that the country could not afford the higher pay raises.

The practical effect of the debate has been that the country’s desire to support the military when troops are dying in the Middle East has provided support for more money and benefits for the military. As the majority of civilian employees are not put in harm’s way, there is not the same political popularity of paying more to civililans but the end result has been that both groups get the same annual pay raise.

The result has been favorable for federal employees who have generally been receiving larger pay raises than most taxpayers.

So, while anything can happen in politics and the Congressional budget process, the same scenario for the federal pay raise is unfolding again this year. You may see parades supporting returning troops as military members return to their cities and towns across America. You are not likely to see any parades or groups demonstrating in favor of federal employees–unless they are groups of federal employees organized by a union to show support for or against some policy or other.

What pay raise would military personnel or federal employees get without the waging of a war in Iraq? No one knows but chances are the raises would be smaller than raises have been in the recent past. This year is likely to play out the same way and most federal employees will probably get a basic pay raise of 3.1%.

And, before some of our readers start sending in more vitriolic comments regarding President Bush, here is one other thought. While federal pay raises may be political, they are not partisan. Even though President Clinton was strongly supported by federal unions, his proposals for federal pay raises were similar to those proposed by President Bush.

So, while most readers can probably forget getting any satisfaction of being honored by parades, marching bands and flags flying down the main streets of American’s small towns and large cities, you may at least have the satisfaction of knowing you are probably getting a little more money through the political scenario that is likely to play out again this year.

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. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47