OMB tries again to pitch federal pay freeze, performance awards to Congress

The Office of Management and Budget is trying for the second consecutive year to pitch its vision of performance-based pay for federal employees.

Like in 2019, the Trump administration said it would prefer to freeze across-the-board pay raises for civilian federal employees in 2020 and find ways to more strategically reward top performers.

The proposal is already earning the ire of a few House Democrats.

“If we want to recruit and retain top talent, we have to provide employees, at the minimum, with a pay increase to keep up with the cost of living,” said Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.). “Can you explain why the administration is working so hard to harm federal employee paychecks?”

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“We’re not, congressman. We think it’s important to ensure that we have a healthy federal workforce. It’s one of the priorities of the President’s Management Agenda,” Russell Vought, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, told members of the House Appropriations Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee Tuesday.

Vought later cited what’s become a common data point for the Trump administration: 25 percent of the workforce said their pay depends on their performance, according to the results of the most recent Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.

As OMB officials have described, the Trump administration has said on multiple occasions that it prefers to find new and more flexible ways to reward high-performing federal employees. This year, the administration said it will help agencies more strategically use their own performance awards funds to reward top performers and employees who hold mission-critical positions.

Last year, the White House proposed a $1 billion workforce fund to pay for performance-based awards, but the appropriations subcommittee didn’t agree.

“We’d be working with the agency heads to be able to design plans … to make sure high priority areas are addressed but also high performers across the agency are receiving the kind of incentive payments that their merit [and] their performance justified,” Vought said.

“I would also note that we didn’t have it in our [20]19 budget, but Congress gave these workers an across-the-board increase in their pay,” he added. “That is something that is also going to be there for them to benefit from as well.”

“But that certainly was not at the insistence of the administration,” Bishop said. “That was in the wisdom of Congress.”

Employees are still waiting for the retroactive 1.9 percent federal raise to appear in their paychecks.

Margaret Weichert, OMB’s deputy director for management and acting director of the Office of Personnel Management, said last week the federal pay raise was in the “final legal clearance stage” and that she too was frustrated with how long it was taking to implement.

While Vought appeared before the subcommittee to testify on OMB’s own budget, few members had questions about the agency’s own funding plans — or its priorities for the federal workforce.

No one on the subcommittee asked about the administration’s plans to establish a federal personnel policy within OMB as part of the proposed reorganization and merger of the Office of Personnel Management.

The president’s 2020 budget request recommends OMB create a new organization similar to the Office of Federal Procurement Policy.

To stand up this new office, OMB has asked for $400,000 and projects a mere three full-time equivalents to staff it. This new office would supplement OMB’s existing career staff who work on federal personnel policy and would work in tandem with a few personnel policy functions that would move to the General Services Administration.

Weichert said in an interview with Federal News Network last week that the three additional employees proposed for the new OMB personnel office would supplement the existing people who currently staff the agency’s Office of Performance Personnel Management.

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