2008 Pay Raise on Track: What Arguments Will Sway Congress?

An average 2008 pay raise of 3.5% for federal employees has passed a hurdle in the House of Representatives. Will Congress consider the merit of arguments for and against the pay raise or are other factors at play and will they help or hurt the final action on next year’s pay increase?

Federal employee pay always generates interest and controversy. Are federal employees paid too much? Not enough? Should all federal employees get an automatic pay raise each year as long as they are still showing up for work? Should their pay be more closely tied to performance?

In looking through articles on the FedSmith site covering the past several years, the ones with the most comments, the most controversy and the most traffic are almost always those concerning pay. The only topic that comes close was an article a couple of years ago announcing an extra and unexpected day off during the Christmas season.

Here is some good news about the 2008 pay raise. The House has approved the Financial Services Appropriations bill for 2008. It contains authorization for an average federal pay raise of 3.5% in 2008. That does not mean the figure will be final or that you will know the actual amount of your raise until late this year or early in 2008. It does mean that the 3.5% average pay raise has is on a path to be the final, approved figure.

Taxpayers often resent federal employees when they consider the pay and benefits they receive. When most Americans read or hear that the average federal employee compensation (including pay and benefits) is about $106,000, you can expect to see a jaw dropping photo opportunity followed by an irate explanation of how the federal government is ripping off the honest, average American taxpayer who will only take in about $53,000 (including pay and benefits).

And, when many or most federal employees read that same statistic, you can expect an expression of disbelief from some; a statement from others that federal employees are better educated, have more expertise and work harder and are actually underpaid for the work that the do; or that the statistics are the product of a conspiracy to make federal employees look bad and must have been compiled by someone working for OPM or the Bureau of Labor Statistics or the Cato Institute with a political agenda lurking somewhere in the spreadsheet.

The reality is that a conclusion about whether federal employees are paid too much or too little depends on several factors. The most important of these are the financial interests of the person making the judgment; the job and geographic location of the federal employee; the relative financial status of the person receiving the information; the person’s knowledge (or lack thereof) about how the government works and how it is structured; and the underlying political ideology of the person evaluating the information.

Since the information on federal salaries comes out the same from several different agencies, there is not any reliable doubt about its accuracy–despite the inflamed protestations of some who see a conspiracy lurking within several large federal agencies to undercut the financial future of the average civil servant. The crunch comes when trying to decide if federal employees are paid too much or too little.

But here is more good news: Whether federal employees are paid too much or too little probably doesn’t make much difference when the decision is made on the amount of your next pay raise. Arguments will be made on both sides of the issue. I doubt the arguments will sway many politicians.

A Congressional representative wants to stay elected. They get a decent salary, a good retirement package, they often feel like a version of American royalty because they have the power to influence legislation that can make or break an industry that will impact millions of people, and most seem to leave office as multi-millionaires when they retire. Pandering to an interest group that impacts their future is good business and, regardless of the negative image of Congress as a whole, they are smart people who know how to pander to their audience and keep their jobs.

If a Congressman has a considerable number of federal employees in his or her district, it is not a hard decision to vote for a pay raise for federal employees. It doesn’t cost the Congressman anything because the money comes from public funds; it gets them a few more votes or maybe a lot more votes from a demographic group that votes on a regular basis; and voting against the raise will generate controversy in the next election. Even those who do not have a large number of federal employees don’t want to generate negative publicity and help their opponent get more campaign contributions from interest groups that care about the issue.

Consider this statement from Steny Hoyer (D-MD) who represents a large number of federal employees and their families in the Washington, DC area:

“The work that these men and women do is critically important, and their compensation and treatment in the workplace needs to fairly reflect that. I commend the House of Representatives for approving these provisions, which not only recognize the value of the federal workforce, but will no doubt strengthen the government’s ability to recruit and retain the best and the brightest.”

Congressman Hoyer has been in office for a long time and he knows his audience. Why should he care if federal employees are making twice as much as the average American? No one really knows if federal employees are paid too much or too little anyway and the real answer is probably that some are paid too much while others (especially in high cost areas) are not paid enough.

The self-interest of elected representatives will assure that the next pay raise for federal employees will get passed and implemented. The average pay raise for federal employees in 2008 may be 3.5% or it could be a little more or less than that depending on how political events unfold later in the year. The actual merits of the arguments for and against the pay raise won’t make that much difference.

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