In break with tradition, Trump announces 1% federal pay raise intentions to Congress months early

President Donald Trump has announced his intention to give civilian employees a federal pay raise next year — and submitted an official plan to Congress all in one day.

Civilian employees would receive a 1% federal pay raise in 2021, according to Trump’s alternative pay plan, which he submitted to Congress just hours after the White House released next year’s budget request to the public.

The alternative pay plan reaffirms the proposal the president included in his 2021 budget request, which again recommended a 1% across-the-board raise for civilian employees.

Locality pay rates, according to the president’s alternative pay plan, would be frozen at 2020 levels.

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The pay raise would become effective Jan. 1, 2021.

The timing of the president’s pay announcement is especially unusual, as Trump and previous administrations have typically waited to inform Congress of their federal pay plans until August.

An official familiar with the decision said it made more sense to release the president’s alternative pay plan with the budget.

“Under current law, locality pay increases averaging 20.67% costing $21 billion in the first year alone, would go into effect in January 2021, in addition to a 2.5% across-the-board increase for the base General Schedule,” Trump wrote in a Feb. 10 letter to Congress. “We must maintain efforts to put our nation on a fiscally sustainable course; federal agency budgets cannot sustain such increases.  Accordingly, I have determined that it is appropriate to exercise my authority to set alternative pay adjustments for 2021.”

Like he did in his 2021 budget request, Trump reiterated his intention to increase opportunities for performance-based rewards, rather than across-the-board pay raises.

Margaret Weichert, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, said the 1% across-the-board bump was an attempt to “meet Congress halfway” on federal pay raises.

“Our pay system must reform to align with mission-critical recruitment and retention goals, and to reward employees whose performance provides value for the American people,” Trump wrote. “For this purpose, my budget further directs agencies to increase awards spending in FY 2021 by an amount equal to no less than 1% of total salary spending.  My administration will continue to support reforms that advance these aims.”

All presidents must submit an alternative pay plan to Congress by Aug. 31, otherwise automatic locality increases under the Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act (FEPCA) kick in at the start of the next year.

Though most presidents have broken with the statutory formulas that typically dictate federal pay adjustments, most have waited until the August deadline to make their intentions official to Congress.

The timing of Trump’s announcement Monday evening puzzled at least one federal employee union. The National Treasury Employees Union, however, said it would continue to push Congress for a higher federal pay raise.

A bicameral group of Democrats reintroduced the Federal Adjustment of Income Rates (FAIR) Act in late January. The bill calls for a 3.5% federal pay raise.

“By delivering the budget proposal calling for only a 1% pay increase for federal employees and delivering the alternative pay plan with the same figure to Congress on the same day, the administration is making crystal clear its intention to hold the line and leave federal employees struggling with a below-market pay increase,” Tony Reardon, NTEU national president, said in a statement. “NTEU stands firm in our support of the House and Senate bills calling for a 3.5%increase that will help close the pay gap and allow federal employees to keep up with increasing costs in health care, education, housing and other necessities.”

But Trump chose to submit his alternative pay plan in February, on the day he released his 2021 budget request, and months before the August deadline.

Though the timing of Trump’s announcement is peculiar, Congress, as it has for the past two years, can still block the president’s federal pay proposal and legislate their own raises for the civilian workforce.

Federal pay adjustments aren’t final until the president makes them official with an executive order, and even still, Congress could pass its own federal pay raise proposal into law on its own.

This isn’t the first time Trump has shaken up expectations when it comes to this particular federal pay announcement.

He reversed course last August when told Congress of his plans to give civilian employees a 2.6% federal pay raise for 2020. Trump had indicated he would freeze federal pay in his 2020 budget request earlier that year.

Ultimately, Congress passed a 3.1% federal pay raise into law, which members included in one of two minibus spending packages for 2020. The raise cleared Congress in late December, and Trump finalized the 3.1% federal pay raise with an executive order the day after the Christmas holiday.

Employees received a 1.9% retroactive federal raise in 2019, but only after enduring a 35-day government shutdown. Congress eventually agreed to break with the president’s enacted pay freeze and included the federal pay raise in another catch-all omnibus spending package.