Congress has diverse paths to make the pay freeze law

Wednesday - 12/1/2010, 7:10am EST

WFED's Jason Miller with Stan Collender, director of federal budget policy for Qorvis Communications

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By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

Congress could take several different approaches to take the two-year federal pay freeze from proposal to law. But no matter their paths, Stan Collender, director of federal budget policy for Qorvis Communications and a federal budget expert, said it's as much of a sure thing as one will find on Capitol Hill.

"Except for members with large federal employee constituencies, this is a pretty easy vote for most members," he said. "The President, Congressional Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats all support this. Not only was [Monday's] announcement not surprising, it was predictable. Federal pay and federal employment are some of the biggest targets for symbolic reasons. You never say never in politics, but this is as sure as you get."

Collender said lawmakers could add a provision to a continuing resolution or an omnibus spending bill, or pass a separate bill to limit the amount of money for federal salaries.

"The easiest thing is to include language in a continuing resolution that would last for the full year," he said.

President Obama proposed on Monday freezing federal employee at civilian agencies and non-servicemen and women pay for two calendar years starting in 2011.

Support for the pay freeze has been wide among many members of Congress. Congressmen Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and Sens. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) came out strongly in favor of the freeze.

Other members-mostly those with large numbers of federal employees in their districts-expressed concern.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) told the Dorobek Insider Tuesday that the proposal was "not a thoughtful approach," and sends a negative message, perhaps inadvertently, about the federal workforce, feeding into the "demagogic rhetoric" in some midterm races.

The freeze also came up Tuesday during President Obama's meeting with lawmakers at the White House.

"Several members mentioned, on both sides, that -- spending and the deficit obviously was something that was talked about quite a bit, and that we're going to have to make a series of decisions that might not be popular in individual districts, particularly around the Washington area, but that are hard decisions that ultimately have to be made if we're going to make progress on our deficits and our debt," said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs during his briefing Tuesday. "And the -- several applauded the President for making that decision."

The proposal also comes ahead of the Deficit Commission report that is scheduled to be issued Wednesday and voted upon by Friday. The draft report called for a three-year freeze as well as rolling discretionary spending back to fiscal 2010 levels for 2012, requires one percent cut in discretionary budget authority every year from 2013 through 2015 and cutting the federal workforce by 10 percent by 2015.

Collender said federal employee unions, employees and contractors should contact their Congressmen and Senators to express concern about the proposal.

"If they don't explain the impact on them and their communities now, this will fly through," he said. "The most important thing now is to talk to their representatives otherwise the freeze will definitely happen unless contractors, employees and employee families express their opinions."

Collender added that employee unions are weakened because the Republicans will control the House and the Democrats have a smaller majority in the Senate.

"I'm sure they will energize their members and they may succeed in watering down the proposal to maybe only one year, but it's going to be a tough year for unions to prevail," he said.

In fact, John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said Monday that he doesn't believe there is much of a chance to fight this proposal on Capitol Hill.

This would be the third time since 1986 that a President proposed freezing federal employee pay. In 1986, President Reagan and Congress agreed to a one-year freeze. In 1994, President Clinton tried to freeze federal pay, but Congress did not approve it.

Collender said this time around is much different for several reasons.

"This size of deficit is much bigger now than in 1994 and 1986," he said. "The politics of this are in a much more take no prisoners pose. Washington has become much more bitter compared to 1994 and 1986 and much more partisan and federal employees and federal spending are a bigger target."

Collender predicted that the pay freeze could be just the beginning of attempts by Republicans to cut federal employee benefits and spending on workers.