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Without words, federal workers are on track to get a pay raise

Benjamin L. CardinPublic EmployeesBarbara A. MikulskiU.S. CongressJustice System

In Washington, what isn't said is often important, too.

Without including a word in the bipartisan budget deal that reopened federal agencies on Thursday, Maryland Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Ben Cardin paved the way for a 1 percent pay raise for federal workers — the first such increase in three years.

The Democrats were able to secure the raise without a trace largely because of the arcane way federal salary increases are set. President Barack Obama had already proposed the raise for employees, to begin in January. Blocking that proposal would require an act of Congress.

And so because the raise wasn't expressly struck from the agreement, it's on track — at least for now.

"It was not easy," Cardin said. "They worked very hard to [block the raise] on the Republican side."

Congress overwhelmingly supported the deal to reopen federal agencies until Jan. 15 and extend the nation's $16.7 trillion debt ceiling until spring, and Obama signed it Thursday morning. The law ended a 16-day shutdown that furloughed 800,000 federal workers nationwide, including tens of thousands of Marylanders.

The effort to provide federal employees a raise emerged in the final days of the negotiations and never became public. Several union officials said that they were pleased the deal was reached to reopen government but added that they were caught off guard by the pay raise.

Mikulski and Cardin did not announce the move until after the Republican-led House of Representatives voted Wednesday night. The chamber has led past efforts to cut federal compensation.

"Right now the 1 percent pay raise is on a path to being implemented," said Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union.

That outcome was due in large part to Mikulski's position as chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee — a job that puts her in close contact with the leaders who negotiated the agreement. Cardin, a seasoned legislator in his own right, also persistently lobbied on the issue.

Kelley and other union officials were cautious in reacting to the news, noting that a pay raise remains far from guaranteed.

Congress could still overturn the president's raise, as it has in the past. And the spending measure provides no additional money for the increase — which will cost about $1 billion — meaning agencies will have to cover the expense from existing budgets.

But even though lawmakers technically could block the raise, the timing of the next budget fight could make it practically difficult to do so.

The pay increase would officially take effect in the first weeks of January. The next best opportunity to overturn the increase would come around Jan. 15. That's when the government will run out of money again and Congress must pass another stopgap budget, complete a long-term deal or risk another shutdown.

In other words, some federal employees likely will be receiving higher pay by the next deadline. It's generally more difficult to take away a pay raise already in place than to turn back one that has been proposed.

"This modest pay raise demonstrates the respect we have for our federal workers who have been furloughed, laid off, locked out, and scapegoated," Mikulski said in a statement.

Republicans remained mum about the move Thursday. Asked for his reaction, Rep. Andy Harris said such a decision should have been negotiated in the open.

"This is what happens with last-minute deals that no one really reads the fine print on," he said.

Pay rates for federal workers have been frozen since January 2010, though some employees have seen higher paychecks due to promotion, performance or because they have advanced to the next step of the federal pay scale.

The effort was one of several made by lawmakers in Maryland and Virginia in recent days to help federal workers. Cardin was the lead sponsor of a bill to provide back pay for employees — language that made it into the final deal. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, helped shepherd similar legislation through the House.

As for the raise, one union leader urged workers to be cautious. "I would strongly encourage federal employees to not count their chickens before they hatch," said Jessica Klement, legislative director at the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association.

john.fritze@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jfritze

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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Benjamin L. CardinPublic EmployeesBarbara A. MikulskiU.S. CongressJustice System
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