EVEN BY the standards of President Trump’s administration, his proposal to freeze federal pay at current levels through 2019 counts as an unusually hypocritical policy choice.
Perhaps this little gesture of government-bashing will provide a “drain the swamp” talking point for Republican House candidates in the fall. Of all the factors contributing to the federal budget deficit these days, however, excessive pay increases for the 2.2 million civilian federal employees (two-thirds of all federal pay goes to the departments of Defense, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs) would not even rank in the top 10. Consumer prices, as measured by the Federal Reserve’s preferred index, rose at an annual rate of 2.3 percent in July, according to the Commerce Department. That means that the average federal worker’s pay would actually shrink slightly, in real, inflation-adjusted terms, even if government employees received the 1.9 percent cost-of-living increase for which 96 out of 100 U.S. senators voted on Aug. 1.
The truth of the matter is that federal deficits are rising because the Republican-led Congress enacted, and Mr. Trump signed, a massive tax cut (skewed heavily in favor of wealthy individuals and corporations) while boosting federal spending. In April, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the combined impact of these policy changes would be to increase federal debt held by the public by $2.2 trillion more in 2027 than the CBO had projected in 2017. So it’s a bit rich when the president declares, in formally announcing his proposed freeze, “We must maintain efforts to put our nation on a fiscally sustainable course, and federal agency budgets cannot sustain such increases.”
To be sure, Mr. Trump employed that language in the course of a statement explaining why he could not let certain genuinely unaffordable automatic pay increases go into effect, as would have technically been required under the terms of an arcane 1990 federal compensation law. However, nothing in the law required him to zero out federal employees rather than follow the Senate’s lead. Nor are we talking about a genuinely trying economic and political situation such as the one during President Barack Obama’s first term, during which Mr. Obama was obliged to freeze federal pay for three years. Indeed, Mr. Trump never tires of boasting how well the economy is doing, as he did on Thursday, tweeting, “The news from the Financial Markets is even better than anticipated . . . more good news is coming!”
Another difference between Mr. Obama’s pay freeze and the one Mr. Trump proposes is that the former came amid budgetary restraint by other agencies; shared sacrifice is the only context in which federal pay ought to be limited, or at least the preferred one. To single federal workers out in this manner — indeed, to impose a cut on them in real terms — serves no purpose but a political one. Congress, both the Senate and the House, would have to act to thwart Mr. Trump’s unwise directive. Since the House has previously not supported even a modest increase, that’s a faint hope. But it is the only one.