The Federal Budget, Government Shutdown and the 2008 Pay Raise

Any federal employee who may have wondered if career civil service employees are involved in politics need only consider the current budget war on spending for fiscal year 2008 (for the fiscal year that started October 1st). Will there be a government shutdown? Will “nonessential” federal employees be sent home? Will the dispute impact your 2008 pay raise?

If you were a federal employee or a federal contractor in the latter months of 1995, you probably remember what you were doing in November and December of that year. Federal workers were being sent home and President Clinton vetoed several appropriations bills. While “nonessential” federal workers were not in the offices for part of the year, most believed they would eventually be paid just as if they had come to work–although being called a “nonessential” federal employee undoubtedly had a sting to it that many would not forget. And, in fact, those that were sent home did get paid even though they did not come to work as the political dispute raged in Washington.

Some contractor employees also lost money and many did not get repaid after the political tussle was over and done with. When the hot air evaporated after the last press conference, the country survived, a budget was eventually passed and life went on as before.

Recent news headlines have a ring of familiarity. Congress and the President are in a battle over federal spending. The President has vetoed one large spending bill and other vetos are likely to follow. Democrats are issuing press releases and calling news conferences to explain why they are right and the other side is wrong. The war of words between the two branches of government is escalating as each side seeks to gain a political advantage for the national elections coming next year.

Republicans are hoping that a political message of trying to lower taxes will resonate as Democratic candidates are coming up with new, innovative ways to spend huge sums of money on new programs. By portraying themselves as the party in favor of more spending restraint by the federal government, voters will be more likely to vote Republican–at least that is the theory.

Democrats frame their political posture as one of trying to help people cope with increased costs for gasoline, health care, college tuition, etc. While this will mean higher taxes, their posture is that the increased spending will be funded by taxing the “rich” in America and hoping that giving more money to more voters through government spending will result in more votes for Democratic candidates.

And, while favoring lower government spending has been a Republican issue for several decades, the party certainly hurt their credibility in the past few years by increasing spending at a rapid rate while Congress and the White House were in the hands of Republicans.

All of this adds up to a nasty scenario when it comes to approving a budget for federal agencies. Republicans know they have to work hard to alter the view that they talked against more federal spending but approved more money for more pork barrel projects and “the bridge to nowhere” and created higher federal deficits. To have a chance of regaining power in Congress and keeping the White House, they have to take a strong stand against the federal budget. Backing down in the war or words and political intrigue is hard to do when the stakes are high and politicians have been issuing press releases to gain support from voters.

In other words, the budget is foundering in a “perfect storm” of political intrigue as politicians seek to retain and expand their power.

Will there be another government shutdown? Will “nonessential” federal employees be sent home again as part of the bargaining posturing between Congress and the White House?

It could happen depending on the twists and turns and the intensity of the vitriolic press releases that are sure to keep coming for awhile. Part of the problem is that Congressmen like to ensure they can stay in office until they die or get tired of coming to work. One way to do that is to show the folks back home they are successful in bringing millions of federal dollars into a city or town through earmarks. It may not be in the national interest to do so but, when it comes to trying to win a political campaign, national interest gets quickly shoved aside as elected officials fight to get as much money as possible to spend in their districts.

One need only read a new revelation from Roll Call that, in the midst of the highly visible political battle to control spending, “House and Senate Democrats have inserted at least 18 previously undisclosed earmarks into the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and related agencies spending bill totaling more than $24 million, while taking steps to limit access to key budget documents prepared for appropriators by federal agencies.”

But another shutdown is not likely. Budget director Jim Nussle doesn’t anticipate a government shutdown. “I don’t believe there’s a serious concern” that might happen, he said to reporters recently. And House leader Steny Hoyer echoes that sentiment. “We have no intention — and I have talked to the president — the president has no intention of shutting down the government,” Hoyer said during remarks on the House floor.

What is more likely is that there will be a continuing resolution to keep the government running. There is currently a budget resolution that keeps the government running until December 14th. That takes some pressure off of legislators who have bought a few more weeks to resolve the impasse. As the pressure builds, there may be a final resolution so that there will actually be a budget for the current fiscal year. In fact, Roll Call reports that “Congressional Republicans are quietly urging the White House to incorporate some wiggle room in its hard-line stance over how much Congress should spend on domestic priorities.”

Most readers will be wondering if they will be sent home in a government shutdown. The answer is probably not. The political stakes are too great and the outcome too uncertain for the two political parties.

Will federal employees get a raise in 2008? There is little doubt that federal employees will get a raise for 2008. When and how much is up in the air and dependent on what happens in the budget negotiations that are obviously going to be emotionally charged. With that kind of intensity, anything can happen. The most likely result: a 3.5% average pay raise for the federal workforce.

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