Trump cancels pay raises for civilian federal employees

A bold old-school move, more tea party 2010 than MAGA 2018. It’s a safe-ish play politically, I would think, as “more pay for government bureaucrats!” isn’t a good talking point even for Democrats.

But only “safe-ish,” not safe. We’re two months removed from national elections and federal workers are overrepresented in some battleground states/districts. Some are sure to take out their annoyance at losing their raise on the GOP. The question is whether there are enough concentrated in one place to swing a race.

Under current law, federal employees are set to receive a 2.1% across-the-board pay increase as well as location-based increases beginning on Jan. 1, 2019, but Mr. Trump said he is eliminating those raises.

“We must maintain efforts to put our nation on a fiscally sustainable course, and Federal agency budgets cannot sustain such increases,” the president informed Congress in a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan Thursday.

Mr. Trump is authorized to submit alternative plans for federal employee pay if “national emergency or serious economic conditions affecting the general welfare” would render the current pay increases inappropriate.

POTUS loves “national emergency” justifications for his economic decisions since they let him cut through red tape and potential congressional resistance. Congress bowed to him on his national-security rationale for leveling steel and aluminum tariffs on allies like Canada but they might not bow to him on this given the electoral blowback they risk facing from federal workers in November if Trump’s policy stands. Politico notes that the Senate passed a spending bill earlier this year providing for 1.9 percent pay hike for civilian federal workers and could do so again in response to today’s decision. Would Trump sign it or pick a fight on this issue given the electoral stakes?

If the policy does stand, I assume a lawsuit will be filed somewhere testing the “national emergency” basis for the policy. A pay freeze in the middle of a roaring economy, less than a year removed from a massive tax cut that came packaged with no offsetting spending cuts, is hard to sell as an emergency measure. You may not hear Dems pounding the table for America to throw more money at our country’s bureaucracy but you will hear them pound the table about nickel-and-diming the federal workforce when the GOP was happy to embrace new deficits in the name of slashing taxes. E.g.:

The pay freeze will save $25 billion; the tax cuts amounted to $1.5 trillion in lost revenue. Dem Sen. Ben Cardin also lambasted Trump in a statement this afternoon, calling it “outrageous and hypocritical” that he’s forever boasting about amazing economic growth and lower taxes and then “suddenly the White House finds that there is zero money left to pay a minimal cost-of-living adjustment to the patriotic, dedicated public servants.” Why is Cardin so exercised about this, you ask? Because he represents Maryland, a state with an unusually large share of civilian federal workers due to its proximity to D.C. Virginia also has a large share, of course, particularly northern Virginia — and as it happens, northern Virginia is the site of a House swing district whose Republican incumbent is already in a dogfight for reelection this fall. The universal reaction among political junkies when Trump’s pay-freeze decision was announced this afternoon was “Poor Barbara Comstock!” Comstock herself agrees:

She’ll probably be an ex-incumbent in a few months unless Congress acts to reverse Trump’s decision. By the way, although Maryland and Virginia have a large share of federal workers, the vast majority work outside the D.C. metro area. California has the largest number, of course, but another state with a sizable chunk is Texas, where nearly 200,000 people collect federal paychecks. If the Cruz/O’Rourke race is tight and a chunk of right-leaning federal workers decide to vote their pocketbooks by tilting blue instead, it could be a long night in November.