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White House and House of Representatives Clash on Civilian Pay

pentagon-budget-cuts-defense-spending-detailed

The House passed a defense appropriations bill at odds with the White House on DoD civilian pay.

Bloomberg (“House Passes Pentagon Spending Bill With No Aid to Egypt“):

The House voted today to give the U.S. Army and Navy more procurement money than they sought for fiscal 2014 — funds designated for Blackhawk helicopters made by United Technologies Corp. and Patriot missile interceptors from Lockheed Martin Corp.

[...]

The measure would appropriate $129.6 billion for pay and benefits for active duty, reserve and National Guard members, an increase of $2.1 billion from the fiscal 2013 enacted level, though $750 million less than the White House request.

A pay increase of 1.8 percent, rather than the 1 percent raise requested by the Pentagon, would go to all military personnel starting Jan. 1, 2014. Service members received a 1.7 percent pay raise for this year.

Civilian personnel wouldn’t receive an increase under the bill; their pay has been frozen for three years. The Obama administration has requested a 1 percent increase for civilian personnel.

Army Times (“House votes to block more DoD furloughs in 2014“):

The House added a whole new wrinkle to concerns about military readiness and budget cuts on Tuesday by passing legislation barring furloughs for civilian workers in fiscal 2014.

Passed by voice vote as an amendment to the 2014 defense appropriations bill, the legislation sponsored by Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., prohibits the Defense Department from spending any money to implement civilian furloughs beginning Oct. 1, 2013.

Lamborn said the vote is “a first step toward restoring sanity to the defense budget and restoring pay to our nation’s civilian defense workers.”

[...]

The vote comes as 650,000 defense civilian workers are just starting to take 11 scheduled furlough days as a cost-cutting measure to cope with the $37 billion across-the-board sequestration cuts required when Congress and the White House failed to reach an agreement earlier this year on spending and deficit reduction.

There are increasing concerns that an even bigger, $52 billion sequester would occur in fiscal 2014, which begins Oct. 1, because the Obama administration and Congress appear no closer to an agreement.

In preparation for possible 2014 cuts, DoD does not intend to do more civilian furloughs, but is instead planning for potential layoffs. In a so-called “Plan B” letter to Congress, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel did not rule out more furloughs but said an involuntary reduction-in-force of civilians is one of the steps being planned in case sequestration carries into 2014.

Barring furloughs would limit Pentagon options, making layoffs not just more likely but also deeper, according to congressional aides. Inability to absorb short-term budget cuts from civilian furloughs also could force DoD to make deeper cuts in other programs, such as military personnel.

Hagel has already warned sequestration in 2014 could result in a freeze in promotions and reassignment moves and lead to the cancellation of discretionary recruiting and retention bonuses.

So, to recap:

The House upped the military procurement budget to pay for helicopters and interceptors the Pentagon didn’t ask for, raised pay for uniformed military at almost double the rate the White House asked for, and didn’t raise civilian pay again for the third straight year while the White House asked for a smaller but across-the-board raise for all DoD employees. Meanwhile, they’ve signaled that another year of sequestration is baked in but would forbid furloughing civilian workers, thus all but ensuring layoffs.

We’ll see what comes out of the Senate. As to the House version, my instincts are:

While the increased funding for Blackhawks and Patriots is likely pork, it’s a perfectly legitimate Congressional role to push back. And, even if the primary motivation is jobs in the district, there may also be sound military reasons to buy more of these systems. It’s not as if the White House or even the Pentagon are without political motive.

The White House position on pay strikes me as reasonable and, indeed, has been my default position for decades. That is, cost-of-living increases should be fixed across government and apply not only to current workers but pensioners as well. So, our fighting men in Afghanistan, our retired grandmothers, military retirees, and Members of Congress should get the same pay raise each year, based on a calculation of the actual rate of inflation and the state of the national treasury. To the extent that we determine that some group is underpaid, either in terms of value to the nation or competition from the private sector for talent, we should address that separately.

In terms of the uniformed-civilian divide at DoD, we’ve been skewing the gap far too much in the direction of the former for decades. For a variety of reasons, we lionize the former as heroes and the latter as bureaucratic drones. As a consequence, however, people doing comparable work and at comparable “rank” within the system are being paid quite differently depending on whether they wear a uniform or a coat and tie to work. Add in the fact that military retirement remains lavish (half of one’s base pay for life after twenty years of service, starting as early as age 38) while civil service workers have long since shifted to a 401k-style system and the balance is completely out of whack.

Incidentally, the Obama administration has threatened a veto if this inequity remains in the final bill. That is, they’re demanding that, whatever pay increase there is apply to both uniformed and civilian alike. We shall see.

I have mixed feelings about the furlough issue. On the one hand, I consider it outrageous (and quite possibly illegal) to force people to take unpaid leave as a means of cutting costs. People in the lower grades, especially, are being deeply hurt by the practice as they tend to live paycheck-to-paycheck. On the other hand, until Congress and the White House decide to end their stand-off and make rational decisions about how much and what kind of government services to buy, furloughs are probably a better way of handling the situation than firing people outright. Given the state of the economy, I’d rather be forced to take a pay cut than lose my job entirely.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. John D'Geek says:

    I don’t mind the difference in retirement since, pretty much by definition, civilians don’t get shot at for a living. But Congress seems to forget that the top workers can go anywhere — and with such conditions, they will go.

    Anywhere.

    The only good news is that the layoffs will be “blunted” somewhat by the fact that some organizations have been expecting this for years. They will first trim “authorized but unfilled”. The bad news is that this practice won’t do a whole lot — it’s just the “perennially screwed” organizations within the DoD that maintain those “buffers”.

    This does mean, ironically enough, that we will once again be paying more for contractors since they won’t have the DoD personnel available.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 3

  2. DC Loser says:

    I’m so glad I took the early retirement offer and now make a lot more as a beltway bandit than I did as a government employee, plus with my pension. Life is good.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

  3. Scott F. says:

    While the increased funding for Blackhawks and Patriots is likely pork, it’s a perfectly legitimate Congressional role to push back.

    Let me get this straight… It is legitimate for Congress to increase funding for systems the military says it doesn’t need, even though it is likely pork? Because…?

    The funding is a gift to United Technologies Corp. and Lockheed Martin Corp. – plain and simple. Funding for other weapons systems – ones the Pentagon thinks they actually need – would also create jobs, perhaps even more jobs. It’s just that those jobs will not be in the congressional districts of the more powerful members of the Defense Appropriations committee – members to whom the leaders of United Technologies Corp. and Lockheed Martin Corp. will be eternally grateful.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 1

  4. James Joyner says:

    @Scott F.: But the Pentagon often plays cynical games with procurement, too. The assumption in press accounts is always that the DoD is making a sober assessment of the actual security needs of the nation when, in fact, it’s a giant bureaucracy making inter-service deals and protecting its own rice bowls. Congress has, not infrequently, wound up pushing money into programs the nation needed that the Pentagon, or the hosting services, didn’t want. I don’t know enough about the particular funding decision here to assess which category this falls into. I’m just saying it’s not cut-and-dried.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 4

  5. NickTamere says:

    On the other hand, until Congress and the White House decide to end their stand-off and make rational decisions about how much and what kind of government services to buy

    This is akin to saying “as soon as the FBI and Bonnie & Clyde decide to end their stand-off and make rational decisions”. This impasse exists because one side refuses to negotiate or capitulate (and those that do are labelled traitors and sell-outs), and that side ain’t the executive.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 2

  6. Mike says:

    The problem with a RIF of gov’t employees is that there will be no weeding out of the deadweight that exists at every org. They will likely target the newest employees and not the most inept.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 2

  7. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @John D’Geek:

    I don’t mind the difference in retirement since, pretty much by definition, civilians don’t get shot at for a living.

    I feel the need to point out that most of the men and women serving in the Armed Forces don’t get shot at either. That said, I do not begrudge them the generous retirement plan they are given. After all, if I had wanted it, I could have signed up too.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  8. Woody says:

    @NickTamere:

    I had the same reaction:

    until Congress and the White House decide to end their stand-off and make rational decisions about how much and what kind of government services to buy

    “Congress” should properly read, “House Republicans.”

    Of course, if that change is made, “decide to end their stand off” and “rational decisions” aren’t really applicable, then, are they?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 3

  9. John D'Geek says:

    @Mike:

    The problem with a RIF of gov’t employees is that there will be no weeding out of the deadweight that exists at every org. They will likely target the newest employees and not the most inept.

    The way RIF has been working is to start with VERA/VSIP (“Volunteer Early Retirement Authority / Volunteer Seperation Incentive Program” … i think) — ask for volunteers to get axed & pay them generously. In the past that was critiical to get rid of the old CSRS retirees(aka “Golden Handcuffs”, aka “good retirement benefits”), but those are pretty much gone at this point. From here, what’s more likely to happen is that VERA/VSIP will be offered and the best and brightest will take it, leaving the government with the “low hanging fruit”.

    Shorter: New folks will still be here, but not only will it not get rid of the “bad” employees — it will encourage the best employees to leave.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  10. John D'Geek says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Eh. Well, right now my “experience” (contractor, not “green suiter”) is with the Army. It’s possible to not do a combat tour in the Army, but almost unheard of. Marines are pretty close (if not worse). We have a lot of “forgotten” combat zones right now.

    Air force, combat duty is pretty much a competitive slot (It’s common to not see combat duty). Navy … I have no clue. But between piracy and the Cole bombing, I’d guess closer to Army & Marines than Air Force.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  11. Davebo says:

    @John D’Geek:

    With some exceptions Navy “combat” is a lot different than what the Army or Marines go through. My combat experience in the Navy was just like any other day except when the planes returned to the carrier their bombs/missiles were no longer there.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  12. RM says:

    When you describe the 38 year old with a lifetime pension after 20 years, remember that this rare individual MUST retire at 48 years old (30 years of service). Not much of a job market out there to start a new career at almost 50 years old these days.

    When comparing civilian and uniformed, most civilian DoD workers do not get involuntarily relocated every 3-4 years much less get sent to unaccompanied tours or combat zones. And even though the SES corps has a mandatory relocation policy (they can be re-assigned to a new job at the will of the gov’t) I’ve never seen that happen since the SES corps was invented.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 2

  13. DC Loser says:

    @RM,

    I have seen quite a few involuntary SES moves involving overseas relocations, some even to combat zones. This is in the DoD. Of course, the SESs in question always have the option to leave or retire (if eligible). I don’t know about you, but since congress repealed the double dipping rule for military retirees in the early 90s, I’ve seen quite a few military retirees come back into cushy civil service jobs, especially O-5s and 6s sliding in to GS-14 and 15 jobs. Nice gig if you can get it (full military pension plus a nice Gs-15 salary).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  14. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @John D’Geek:

    Eh. Well, right now my “experience” (contractor, not “green suiter”) is with the Army.

    Same here, Fort Leonard Wood. A lot of engineers. Also a lot of truck drivers. Me thinks engineers get shot at a whole lot more than truck drivers. Or computer jockeys. or _________(pick one). Marines, yes. Navy? Not hardly, unless you are a SEAL or a combat pilot. The sinking of a naval vessel is a very rare event. Air Force? Same again. Mind you, there are other ways one can die in the armed services (flagman on aircraft carriers get it on a not too infrequent basis) but than, that is the way it is with a lot of jobs in the civilian sector too. As a union carpenter, there are about a thousand and one ways I could get killed (thank you OSHA).

    My point is that there are far more jobs in the military that don’t require bullet catching than there are those that do.

    One more thing: I don’t count fobbits as having a “combat tour”. The Army might. The Marines, Navy, and Air Force too. But the guys who are out humping their asses off and getting shot at on a near daily basis? They don’t. I will go with their opinion.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  15. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    I suppose I should add that “Fobbits” ARE making a sacrifice. They are serving in some real armpits and cesspools. But other than the random mortar coming in once a week they aren’t getting shot at.

    Again, I have no problem with any body collecting their pensions at 20 years. That was part of the deal they signed up for.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  16. Rafer Janders says:

    @NickTamere:

    This is akin to saying “as soon as the FBI and Bonnie & Clyde decide to end their stand-off and make rational decisions”.

    Actually, it’s more akin to saying “as soon as the FBI and David Koresh and his Branch Davidians decide to end their stand-off and make rational decisions”. Bonnie and Clyde, after all, were at least rational actors in that they straight up wanted money. The GOP is just nihilist.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 2

  17. @James Joyner:

    The assumption in press accounts is always that the DoD is making a sober assessment of the actual security needs of the nation when, in fact, it’s a giant bureaucracy making inter-service deals and protecting its own rice bowls.

    Best portrayal of how defense acquisitions actually works ever:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aXQ2lO3ieBA

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  18. @Stormy Dragon: I wouldn’t have recognized Richard Schiff in that video if it wasn’t for the voice and mannerisms.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  19. @Timothy Watson:

    It’s from a movie HBO did in the 90s called The Pentagon Wars. It’s absolutely hilarious if you love black comedy. Essentially the defense industry’s version of Office Space

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  20. Just Me says:

    The Navy also supplies corpsmen for marine units so any Navy corpsman will very possibly see combat duty (and yes they don’t carry guns and shoot the enemy and aren’t supposed to be targets but its still war).

    Seabees also sometimes get shot at.

    But recent wars haven’t involved enemies with large Naval forces so the sailors who serve aboard ship aren’t getting shot at (and for the vast majority of them the ship supporting combat missions doesn’t do a whole lot different than a ship on a routine cruise for NATO in European waters)-although the routine med run ship is going to make more RandR port calls while the ship in the combat area won’t be making very many.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0