A shutdown deadline, federal pay and other items on government’s to-do list in December

Before the end of 2018, Congress needs solutions for seven unfinished appropriations bills, plus a definitive answer on federal employee pay.

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With the Thanksgiving holiday in the rear view mirror, the lame-duck Congress has just a few weeks left in 2018 to tackle a few big tasks, all of which will have an impact on the average federal employee.

What’s top of mind, of course, is a path forward to fund the rest of government past the latest deadline. Congress passed five of 12 appropriations bills before the midterm elections, but lawmakers still have a significant amount of work left in order to avoid a partial government shutdown on Dec. 7.

Government funding isn’t the only item on the end-of-year-agenda. Here’s what federal employees should watch for in the final month of 2018.

Dec. 7 shutdown deadline

Though Congress did pass significantly more spending bills before the 2018 year-end deadline than in previous years, lawmakers still have seven appropriations bills to tackle before the year ends:

  1. Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies
  2. Interior, Environment and Related Agencies
  3. Financial Services and General Government
  4. Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration and Related Agencies
  5. Homeland Security
  6. Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and Related Agencies
  7. State, Foreign Operations and Related Agencies

The current continuing resolution for the agencies covered under these remaining seven appropriations bills expires Dec. 7.

A group of lawmakers are conferencing over a third “minibus” of appropriations bills, which include interior, financial services, agriculture and transportation and housing and urban development. Congress will need to pass this minibus and the remaining appropriations bills by Dec. 7, extend a continuing resolution that covers all or some of these agencies or face a partial government shutdown on the morning of Dec. 8.

If Congress can’t avoid a partial government shutdown, at least one agency has said it will remain functional past the Dec. 7 deadline.

The Census Bureau, currently under the CR, said it wouldn’t stop work on the 2020 count because Congress pre-funded part of the bureau’s 2019 budget last year, Enrique Lamas, the executive performing the duties of the bureau’s deputy director, told the Census National Advisory Committee earlier this month.

Congress already passed two other “minibuses” earlier in September. One covered the Department of Veterans Affairs, military construction and the legislative branch. The second covered the Defense Department, Department of Health and Human Services, Labor and Education. Agencies covered under these appropriations bills already have full-year funding for 2019 and would stay open if the government were to shut down.

Pay raise…or freeze?

Federal employees’ paychecks still aren’t quite settled for 2019, as Congress has yet to finalize its pay plans for the civilian workforce next year.

House Republicans announced back in October that they had struck an agreement on a 1.9 percent raise for civilian employees next year. A 1.9 percent raise would be in line with what most federal employees received in 2018.

But some Democrats disputed Republicans’ claims. A spokeswoman for Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), ranking member of the House Appropriations Financial Services and General Government subcommittee, at the time said “partisan provisions [shouldn’t] be conditional for the deal.”

Federal unions and other Democratic lawmakers urged caution. A pay raise isn’t final until they see a report from the conference committee hashing out the details, they said in October.

That report hasn’t been finalized yet. A conference committee has been working out the details for a third “minibus” of appropriations bills, which include the financial services and general government act. The conference committee met in September but said it needed more time to resolve the details.

President Donald Trump back in August announced his intention to freeze pay for civilian workers. If Congress can’t agree on a raise, the president’s planned freeze would move forward.

Final sign-off on locality pay

Federal employees in Burlington, Vermont, and Virginia Beach/Norfolk, Virginia, have been waiting several years for locality pay to materialize in their areas.

According to OPM at the most recent Federal Salary Council’s meeting, they should get it in time for their first paychecks in January 2019 — if, of course, federal employees get a raise next year.

Federal employees in San Antonio, Texas, and Birmingham, Alabama, should also receive locality pay in time for their January paychecks, OPM said.

OPM has already started the regulatory process in July to establish Birmingham, Burlington, Norfolk and San Antonio as new locality pay areas. If Congress approves a pay raise before the end of the year, the president must physically set pay rates for these four new locations, in addition to the 47 other locality pay areas.

This typically occurs late in December, again, if federal employees are due to get a raise. Even if Congress can’t approve a pay raise, Birmingham, Burlington, Norfolk and San Antonio will still exist as new locality pay areas. But those employees won’t necessarily reap the benefits of their own locality designations if pay is frozen across the board.

The Federal Salary Council in April had approved two additional locality pay areas in Corpus Christi, Texas, and Omaha, Nebraska. The council had suggested the president’s pay agent may approve the two areas and combine all six into one rulemaking process.

But OPM’s regulations make no mention of Corpus Christi or Omaha, meaning federal employees in those locations will likely have to wait for the president’s pay agent to approve and OPM to take separate action. It’s still unclear if OPM will have time to complete the regulatory process by January.

Certainty for MSPB?

Months after their initial nomination hearing, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee is expected to vote Wednesday on the president’s three nominees to fill the Merit Systems Protection Board and restore a quorum.

The mere news of a committee vote is a surprise. The Senate committee earlier this fall had told Mark Robbins, MSPB’s acting chairman, that Democrats would object to a unanimous consent vote on the president’s three nominees as one package. Even if committee leadership agreed to consider each MSPB nominee on its own, Robbins wasn’t “optimistic” that the full Senate would have enough time to consider each nominee in turn, an MSPB spokesman said.

Still, it’s unclear how Wednesday’s vote will play out. The committee may have sorted out their disagreements over the nominees. And even if the committee has, the full Senate has little time to vote on them before the end of the year. The chamber must vote on the MSPB nominees before it leaves for the holidays. Otherwise, Trump must re-nominate the same candidates or find new ones starting in January.

MSPB has been without a quorum since January 2017. Robbins has served as the lone board member since then. His term, however, expires in March. If the Senate doesn’t act in 2018, it only has three months to consider and vote on a new series of nominees from the White House in 2019.

Congress could break with tradition and may consider an extension of Robbins’ term. His original term expired back in March 2017, and he’s been serving in holdover capacity since then.

The next month will be a pivotal one for federal employees and agencies who have petitions for review pending at MSPB. Though Robbins has spent almost two years reviewing these cases and issuing his own decisions, the petitions will sit at the board for as long as it lacks a quorum.

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