Once again, the Trump administration has proposed freezing federal employee pay in its annual budget request, this time during the 2020 appropriations cycle.

The decision to freeze pay on top of cuts to retirement and health benefits angered federal employee groups. However, according to acting Office of Management and Budget Director Russ Vought, the move is designed to give agencies more flexibility to use pay as a rewards system for their employees.

“[We are] putting forward a proposal in this budget to give agencies more discretion to be able to have bonus payments, increase salaries for recruitment and retention," said Vought at a March 26 House Appropriations Committee hearing.

He added that the administration would be “working with the agency heads to design plans” for addressing the highest-priority workforce needs, rather than an across-the-board pay raise that the administration sees as the “wrong way to align incentives.”

Vought’s explanations echo those of OMB Deputy Director for Management and acting Director of the Office of Personnel Management Margaret Weichert, who noted that results from the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey indicate federal employees want compensation to better reflect performance.

But Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., worried that failing to ensure federal pay keeps pace with the broader economy could exacerbate already difficult workforce challenges.

“If we want to recruit and retain top talent, we have to provide employees, at the minimum, with a pay increase to keep up with the cost of living,” said Bishop, adding that he suspected the Trump administration of “doing everything that it can to cleverly conceal an effort to reduce the federal workforce, therefore, having fewer people to provide the services that the public requires.”

The budget includes provisions for a reduced federal workforce, though Weichert has said that these provisions reflect the reality of a large population of federal workers on the cusp of retirement, rather than an administration attempt to proactively reduce the size of the workforce.

Bishop also worried that an approach that prioritized awards for the most critical top-performers would leave behind feds that perform jobs considered “less critical” by agency leadership.