50+ Years of Federal Pay: Democrats v. Republicans

How have pay raises for federal employees fared under each political party in the last half-century?

For about two decades, FedSmith has been publishing articles about federal employee pay raises. Each year, similar arguments arise in the comments section along partisan political lines.

Regardless of whether the current president is a Republican or Democrat, whether the raise is large or small (in the eyes of the beholder), some readers argue federal employees are much better off under Democrats and others argue they are better off under Republicans. Federal employee unions generally provide strong support for Democrats.

In 2021, after a long and contentious process in the midst of a pandemic, federal employees ended up with an across-the-board pay raise of 1%.

To see your salary for 2021, check out this GS Pay Calculator which allows searching by locality, grade, and step for General Schedule employees.

50 Years of Federal Pay Raises

So how do pay raises for federal employees fare under each political party?

The chart available at the end of this article displays the percentage of each yearly pay raise starting in 1970. This covers periods of high or low inflation, times of international tension, and times of relative peace and tranquility. Most of the raw data is from the Congressional Research Service.

This time period covers six Republican administrations and three for the Democrats. 32 years were under a Republican administration and 20 were under Democrats.

Based on working in or with the federal government’s human resources program for more than 40 years, I concluded an approximately 50-year span adequately displays how federal employees have fared with pay raises under both Democrats and Republicans.

Highest Raises Under Democrats or Republicans?

For this 52-year period, the federal workforce has had higher pay raises during a Republican administration. Here is how it breaks out.

  • The average pay raise per year: 3.71%
  • Under Republicans: 4.05%
  • Under Democrats: 3.65%

The total percentage increase under Republicans has been 123.10% and under Democrats, it has been 61.10%. Keep in mind that the total increases are higher for Republicans in large part because Republicans have held the office for more years than Democrats during this time period.

Presidents With Highest and Lowest Average Pay Increase

When President Nixon was in office, federal employees received the highest average pay raise per year. During the Nixon administration, the average yearly pay raise was 6.64%.

The second-highest average was under President Carter. During President Carter’s time in office, federal employees received an average increase of 6.60%.

The administration with the record for the lowest yearly pay raise was President Obama. The average pay raise for the eight years he was in office was 0.96%. The second-lowest administration for average yearly pay raises was President Reagan (2.58%).

Inflation and the strength of the economy play a role in pay raises. Under President Nixon, the inflation rate ranged between a low of 3.3% (1971) and a high of 12.3% (1974). Under President Obama, inflation ranged between a high of 3% (2011) and a low of 0.7% (2015).

For those with an interest in more recent history, under the eight years of the Obama administration, the total in raises came to 7.70%. Under the four years of the Trump administration, the total in raises came to 7.90%.

The highest inflation rate was under President Carter. During his administration, inflation ranged from a low of 8.9% (1981) to a high of 13.3% (1979).

Pay Raises by Year: 1970-2023

We have displayed the data in a table. Unlike some roughly similar articles published in the past few years, we have put the data into one chart to cover all years of pay raises.

To explain, we have listed pay raises by year and the percentage increase for each year. The totals are displayed in the chart segments in color at the end of each administration and the overall totals for all years are at the bottom of the chart.

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