The Trump administration announced late Friday that it would freeze a pay raise for Vice President Mike Pence, members of the Cabinet and high-ranking political appointees in light of the partial government shutdown.
The officials were positioned to receive a raise of about $10,000 a year — which was to go into effect Saturday — as 800,000 federal employees were entering their third week without pay. The increases were the result of Congress’ failure to renew a long-standing freeze on raises for top officials and political appointees. An extension of the freeze was included in the spending bills funding multiple government agencies that were not acted on before Thursday’s expiration of the 115th Congress.
But on Friday night, the Office of Personnel Management announced that “it would be prudent for agencies to continue to pay these senior political officials at the frozen rate until appropriations legislation is enacted that would clarify the status of the freeze.”
The decision came during an unexpected optics issue for the Trump administration: While correctional officers, Transportation Security Administration agents and other federal employees work without pay during the government shutdown, Pence’s annual salary would have jumped to $243,500 from $230,700. Cabinet secretaries who were paid $199,700 a year would have seen their annual pay rise to $210,700. It also came after the Washington Post reported the potential raises.
The administration appeared to be aware of the perception problem and was trying to avoid it. Asked at his news conference Friday if he would freeze the raises during the shutdown, President Donald Trump said he “might consider that.”
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, later explained that the administration was “exploring options to prevent this from being implemented while some federal workers are furloughed” and described the situation as “another unnecessary byproduct of the shutdown” that she said could be remedied by Congress.
The guidance issued Friday night by Margaret Weichert, the acting director of the Office of Personnel Management, stated that the 2018 pay freeze for certain political officials would be “generally applicable in applying the pay freeze in 2019.” Weichert said in her memo that her department would put forward new guidance if and when Congress took action on the issue.
Democratic lawmakers, who are at an impasse with Trump over his vow to not reopen the government without funding for a wall along the Southwest border, earlier Friday put pressure on the Trump administration, criticizing the potential raises.
Rep. David Price of North Carolina described increasing the salaries of high-ranking officials during a shutdown as “astounding and the height of hypocrisy.” Rep. Nita Lowey of New York said that the bill passed by the House on Thursday to reopen the government would also block what she described as “lavish raises.”
That bill, however, is viewed as a nonstarter in the Republican-controlled Senate.
The Government Accountability Office had also received questions about whether the raises could move forward but responded that the issue was, so far, an unresolved legal question, according to a person familiar with the conversation.
The salary increases would have come as the leaders of some of the unions representing federal workers criticized Trump for what they say is a lack of empathy for the financial problems facing federal employees who have not been paid during the shutdown. At his news conference Friday, Trump confirmed that he had told congressional leaders that he was willing to keep the government closed, potentially, “for a very long period of time, months or even years.”
The freeze on raises for senior-level appointees was a measure that was initiated by House Republicans in 2013, during the Obama administration, as part of a financial services bill. Under the provision, high-ranking officials would have their pay rates frozen, even though the federal schedule of pay raises would increase. That law has been renewed every year since.
In March 2018, Republicans tried to end the freeze, but Democrats succeeded in keeping it.
It’s going to get worse
Agencies out of money include the Departments of Treasury, Homeland Security, Interior, State, Agriculture, Justice, Commerce, Transportation and Housing and Urban Development. Also affected are several smaller departments.
In addition to more abstract ways the partial government shutdown obviously gets worse as time goes on, such as more work piling up and additional trash and waste in non-staffed national parks, the longer the shutdown goes, the worse the pain. A timeline of what’s to come:
Jan. 11: Friday marked the end of the first pay period that fell entirely within the shutdown, meaning furloughed employees will first miss a paycheck covering that pay period on Jan. 11. Federal court operations will be curtailed. Courts have been operating by using court fees and other revenue, but officials have said they’ll have to re-evaluate after Jan. 11.
Third week of January: The Internal Revenue Service has not yet announced when it will begin accepting 2019 tax returns, but typically it happens in the third week of January.
First week of February: Billions of dollars are refunded to households by the first week of February every year. But a shuttered IRS won’t be able to process tax returns. People will continue paying their taxes but won’t receive refunds as promptly as usual. The average refund in 2017 and 2018 was just more than $2,000.
Feb. 4: The president has to submit his budget proposal to Congress by the first Monday in February. If the shutdown continues, typical agency input on what that proposal should include won’t be available and the budget process for the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, will be stalled.
February: Low-income households can now receive food aid from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. The shutdown puts more than 40 million people at risk of having their benefits dry up. While January benefits are expected to remain intact, it’s unclear what could happen next month. States that rely on federal funding for big chunks of their budgets will start to feel the sting as money for highways, community programs and other services could be delayed.
McClatchy News Service contributed to this report.