Pay Raise Parity

House Backs ‘Parity’ In Federal Pay Raises

The House defied Bush administration objections yesterday and voted to continue giving civilian federal employees the same pay raises that military personnel receive.

The 299 to 126 vote was a victory for Washington-area lawmakers from both parties, who said the White House proposal would have sent a signal that civilian workers are less valued and less important than those in military uniforms. Despite the administration’s position, House GOP leaders did not actively oppose the “pay parity” measure, and 95 Republicans joined all House Democrats in backing the bill.

The vote virtually ensures that civilian federal employees will receive a 3.5 percent pay raise in fiscal 2005.

The White House has proposed a 3.5 percent pay increase for the military but wanted civilian workers held to a 1.5 percent increase, which would free about $2.2 billion for other purposes, including equipment for the military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Congress has approved equal pay raises for military and nonmilitary employees in 19 of the past 21 years, pay-parity advocates said.

The House is right on this one. I’ve long argued that these federal cost of living hikes should be across-the-board, including not only the military and federal workforce, but Social Security recipients and military and federal retirees. The purpose of these raises is to offset the impact of inflation, not to change the buying power of the workforce.

The piece makes the point that it’s not just military personnel who are in harm’s way. Certainly, federal employees have increasingly been targets of terrorists. And, indeed, civilians employed by the Department of Defense–not to mention the CIA, Department of Homeland Security, and others–are often required to deploy to combat zones. Still, there’s no doubt that uniformed personnel are, on average, more likely to be killed in the line of duty than a federal civilian. But, then again, an infantryman is more likely to get killed than a finance clerk, but we don’t differentiate their pay.

Over time, military personnel have become much more highly compensated than their federal civilian counterparts. Rank equivalencies have long been established. I’ll use Army/AF/USMC ranks for simplicity and compare the annualized base pay of non-prior service officers just promoted to that rank with that of their GS civilian counterparts at Step 1:

(20 yrs)
$90,010.80 GS-15 $87,439.00
(18 yrs)

GS-13 $74,335.00
$62,905.00 MAJ O-4
(12 yrs) $64,728.00 GS-12 $52,899.00 CPT O-3
(4 yrs) $48,326.40 GS-11
GS-10 $44,136.00

While not perfect, there’s a reasonable alignment in terms of base pay at equivalent ranks. But here’s the kicker: military personnel get substantial pay–untaxed–above and beyond their base pay that their civilian counterparts don’t. If you scroll down the DFAS pay chart to the second page, you’ll see them. For example, a married colonel gets an extra $13,964.40 a year–again, tax free–to pay for housing. Civilians live in houses, too, but have to actually pay for them out of their paychecks. All officers also get an additional $2102.76 a year–tax free–to pay for food. With all these benefits added in, our colonel now makes $106,078 annually compared to the GS-15 making $87,439. And, since $16,067.16 of the colonel’s pay is tax free, the disparity is actually greater.

It seems to me that the way to compensate the military for the hardships of deployment isn’t to change the base pay rates–which are quite competitive for most specialties–but rather to substantially increase hazardous duty and proficiency pay. As silly as it is to pay a colonel extra money to buy food, it’s absolutely insulting to pay only $150 a month for deployment into a combat zone.

Note: All of the rates noted above are the baseline figures. There is also sometimes substantial regional pay differentials. For example, even a junior NCO living in the D.C. area gets well over $1000 a month extra in housing subsidy to offset the hardship of living in a more expensive area. While federal employees don’t get that, their pay is significantly adjusted to offset regional variation.

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, US Politics, , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Blogeline says:

    I do agree with the point you are making. We have been thinking about this as well, when it comes time for my husband to retire in three years.
    I do have my own two cents to throw in here as well though.

    This is not exactly concerning your point here but it is a good opportunity to bring it up.

    One difference concerning military pay vs. civilian pay is that your level of education is rewarded usually when you are a federal employee. You start at a higher pay rate and have better chances of advancement.
    NCOs however do not get rewarded for college degrees. My husband has a Master’s degree but gets the same E-7 pay as somebody that doesn’t have any college education. I know that it is possible to get a commision once you have a degree, however I believe that it is beneficial for the military that there are NCOs with college degress and that should be rewarded.

    I guess it is somewhat hard to make it right for everybody and I am certainly not complaining about our income level. This area (DC) has a large amount of enlisted personel so I think it is important to consider this as well.

  2. James Joyner says:


    It’s not quite true that enlisted personnel don’t get rewarded for college degrees; it definitely helps get them promoted more quickly. In terms of “starting at a higher pay rate,” that’s true in the military as well. People coming in with college degrees typically do so with a commission and start off as O-1s, roughly equivalent to a GS-7. But there’s no line of work I’m aware of, with the exception of schoolteachers, where there’s an automatic pay incentive for getting a degree but not taking on a position of greater responsibility.