Rancor Increases Over Spending As Congress Gets Ready to Leave Town

The political dispute about spending for the fiscal year 2008 budget continues. What are the options for the 2008 federal pay raise?

Congress is back in town for a short time and has a long list of items requiring decisions. One big item is how much federal agencies will be able to spend during the current fiscal year. No budget has yet been passed and pressure is building on both sides with few signs of a compromise in the works that will resolve the issue.

One sticking point is the earmarks that Congressmen like to put into bills. It always sounds good to the folks back home to give a few press conferences announcing a few million will be spent in a local community, courtesy of the elected Congressional member who, by the way, is running for election again and wants your vote as he has your interests at heart while constantly battling the government bureaucracy in Washington, DC.

The Hill reports that a proposal to eliminate all congressional earmarks to meet White House’s steep demands to reduce spending met considerable opposition from both parties and the skepticism signals that many lawmakers will fight to keep their pet projects as Democrats struggle to finalize their year-end budget plans. The proposal that has generated so much hand-wringing in Congress would have eliminated about 9500 earmarks totaling about $9.5 billion dollars. Some in Congress are clinging dearly to their constitutional right to spend tax dollars any way they want to. “Earmarks are unpopular in a media sense, [but] it’s one of the ways Congress exercises its purse strings under the Constitution,” said Gordon Smith (R-OR.). Smith racked up over $68 million in earmarks in the fiscal 2008 energy and water bill this Congress. “The [president’s domestic spending] number is a good goal, but the president doesn’t run the legislative branch. We do. We’re an equal branch of government.”

Democrats have considered trying to pass one big spending bill but that approach has not been well received. And, as the Wall Street Journal reports, “Democrats are rethinking their year-end budget strategy amid anger over White House veto threats and recriminations within the party over the suggestion that Congress is trading on the Iraq war to gain leverage for domestic spending.”

In short, it is an open question as to what will happen with the federal budget. Congress is poised to adjourn for a Christmas break and it seems increasingly likely that questions on the federal spending levels for the current fiscal year may not be resolved by the time they leave Washington to celebrate Christmas with the folks back home. In fact, The Hill reports that some are now refusing to speak to each other about the dispute over spending and the Alternative Minimum Tax disputes.

If the spending bill is rewritten to meet the President’s spending levels, many agencies will have a final budget that is the same as the level of spending for 2007. Veterans’ medical care, which gets a 14% increase under the current draft bill, will probably be protected because of the political sensitivity of the subject.

And what about the 2008 pay raise for federal employees? It all depends on what happens in Congress.

One possibility that is a possible compromise to the current stalemate is that Congress will extend the continuing resolution through the remainder of 2008. Congress could include the 3.5% average pay increase as part of that bill but, with the disputes about money being so contentious, is is just as likely that the President’s lower pay raise proposal would be part of that continuing resolution.

One other possibility: Congress will adjourn for the Christmas break without passing a new spending bill but pass another short-term continuing resolution and try to reach a compromise again in January. If that happens, federal employees would probably get the average 3% pay raise starting in January. When a final agreement is reached, and if that final agreement includes an average 3.5% pay raise, the higher raise could be made retroactive to the first pay period of the new calendar year. As some readers may recall, that is what happened in 2004. (See Spending Bill Passes in Congress Including 4.1% Pay Raise)

The bottom line: Federal spending for the remainder of the 2008 fiscal year is still an open question. There is a good chance Congress will head for home before Christmas without a resolution. Undoubtedly, many readers would like to have the spending issue resolved. Moreover, a government shutdown is still not out of the question as long as the dispute goes on and the personal rancor increases. While that could mean more days off from work for many readers, and the probability they would get paid after the dispute is resolved as happened back in 1995, the prospect and uncertainty is unsettling.

What is your opinion? Should Congress adjourn before passing a spending bill for fiscal year 2008? Do you think there will be a government shutdown in your future? And, finally, what do you think will happen with the federal pay raise in the midst of the ongoing dispute?

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