President Donald Trump intends to freeze federal pay in 2019 in order to keep government spending more sustainable, according to a letter Trump sent to the House speaker and Senate president Aug. 30.

“I have determined that for 2019, both across the board pay increases and locality pay increases will be set at zero. These alternative pay plan decisions will not materially affect our ability to attract and retain a well qualified federal workforce,” Trump wrote.

Trump initially called for a federal pay freeze in his FY19 budget proposal, which also included changes and reductions to employee health and retirement programs.

The president has the authority to set federal pay from year to year, unless Congress specifically outlines its intent for federal pay increases in government appropriations.

Currently, the Senate-passed version of a general government appropriations bill calls for a 1.9 percent federal pay increase, which includes changes to both base and locality pay and matches the pay increase feds received in 2018.

The House-passed version of the same legislation makes no mention of federal employee pay, meaning that Trump’s intent for a pay freeze will rely on which version of the bill makes it through Congress.

Vice Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., reiterated the bipartisan congressional support for the pay raise:

“The United States Senate has a long history of supporting the federal work force by providing competitive pay, which attracts and retains talented women and men to the United States government, who work every day to serve Americans. On Aug. 1, the Senate passed a pay raise of 1.9 percent with strong bipartisan support in a vote of 96 to 2. The Senate will continue to move forward on appropriations bills that have bipartisan support, that are at spending levels agreed to in the bipartisan budget deal and that reject poison pill riders and controversial authorizing language.”

Federal employee groups, such as the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association and the American Federation of Government Employees, have said that they intend to advocate for Congress to pass a version of government appropriations that includes the explicit pay increase for employees.

According to the letter, a pay freeze would make government spending more “fiscally sustainable” and keep government compensation in line with the administration’s goals to use pay increases as an incentive for high-performing employees.

“As noted in my budget for fiscal year 2019, the cost of employing the federal workforce is significant. In light of our nation's fiscal situation, federal employee pay must be performance-based, and aligned strategically toward recruiting, retaining and rewarding high-performing federal employees and those with critical skill sets. Across-the-board pay increases and locality pay increases, in particular, have long-term fixed costs, yet fail to address existing pay disparities or target mission critical recruitment and retention goals,” Trump wrote.

Studies conflict about whether federal pay is comparable to the private sector.

An April 2018 report submitted to the Federal Salary Council by its Locality Pay Working Group indicated that federal employee paychecks were, on average, 30 percent lower than those doing the same work in the private sector.

But an April 2017 Congressional Budget Office study found that while people with no more than a high school diploma made 34 percent more per hour in the federal government than those with the same education in the private sector, those with a master’s degree or higher made less than their public sector counterparts.

“President Trump’s plan to freeze wages for these patriotic workers next year ignores the fact that they are worse off today financially than they were at the start of the decade. Federal employees have had their pay and benefits cut by over $200 billion since 2011, and they are earning nearly five percent less today than they did at the start of the decade," said AFGE National President J. David Cox Sr.

Earlier in August, Trump signed into law the annual defense authorization bill that includes a 2.6 percent pay raise for servicemembers starting in January, the largest military pay raise in a decade.

The increase is in line with the expected rise in private-sector wage growth next year. But the president has frequently touted the military paycheck boost as proof he is keeping faith with troops and their families.

Military Times Capitol Hill bureau chief Leo Shane III contributed to this report.

Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.

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