House overrides Obama, votes to freeze federal pay for third straight year

The House voted Friday to freeze the pay of federal workers for the third year in a row over the objections of congressional Democrats and the Obama administration.

Members voted 261-154 in favor of the bill, which would also lock in a pay freeze for members of Congress. It exempts people serving in the military. 

The bill won significant support from Democrats — 43 voted for it — while 10 Republicans voted against it.

The legislation is an attempt to override President Obama's executive order in December that seeks to give federal workers a 0.5 percent pay hike in late March. That order incensed congressional Republicans, who criticized it as an attempt to seize control of an issue that has traditionally been under Congress's purview.

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House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said the bill is needed to control the costs of the federal government where possible, in order to pursue other objectives.

"It is a small price to pay, consistent with the President's previous pay freeze, to hold pay increases of federal employees for one more year," Issa said during debate.

"We could do this today, or we could cut the National Institutes of Health. We could do this today, or we could park two or three of our aircraft carriers and lay off the crews."

The Obama administration on Wednesday said it opposes the bill, and that its proposed pay hike would "help ensure that the government remains competitive in attracting and retaining the Nationˈs best and brightest individuals for public service."

That statement did not go so far as saying Obama would veto the bill. Such a threat is most likely not needed, as the Senate is not expected to consider the House bill.

However, House Republicans will likely have another chance to keep federal pay frozen. Congress is expected to consider another continuing spending resolution for the rest of 2013 before late March, when the current resolution expires.

As they did earlier in the week, Democrats charged Republicans with forcing federal workers to shoulder the costs of deficit reduction.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said federal workers have "already contributed more than $100 billion towards reducing the deficit and funding unemployment benefits for millions of American workers."

"No other group of Americans have contributed more to reducing the deficit," he said.

Issa rejected that assessment by noting that the $100 billion price tag on the pay freeze is over 10 years, and that it was less than $10 billion in the first year of the freeze.

"Many of those sacrifices won't occur because people aren't necessarily be here for all ten years," he added.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said three years of a pay freeze is a "punishing cut in pay."

"Federal employees have not asked for a pass," she said. "But there is no way to justify singling them out as a solitary target, alone, repeatedly, picked out and picked on for cuts apart from the rest of the federal budget."

But Issa rejected that argument as well, and criticized Democrats for calling "$274 a catastrophe for the federal workforce." That's the amount a worker earning about $55,000 a year would not be getting from the 0.5 percent pay hike if the bill became law.

Issa also argued that federal workers have seen pay increases, as they are given step increases within their pay grade.

Only two Republicans — Reps. Frank Wolf (Va.) and Frank LoBiondo (N.J.) — spoke against the bill during the debate. Both argued that FBI agents, CIA agents and other federal first-responders should not have their pay frozen given that their work puts their lives at risk.

"I've talked to the CIA officers who are putting their lives on the line every single minute of every day," LoBiondo said. "They don't know when an attack is coming on them. They don't know from which direction. And we are going to tell them that they should not get even a single dollar? Shame. That's not what we should be about."

The legislation also freezes the pay of members of Congress. Democrats charged that Republicans included that language just to ensure support for the bill, and argued that there has been no threat to increasing the pay of members of Congress for the last few years.

On Thursday, however, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) argued that freezing the pay of members undermines the dignity of the job. "I think it's necessary for us to have the dignity of the job that we have rewarded," she said.

— This story was updated at 3:55 p.m.