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The ‘Optics’ may Cost Feds Again this Year by Federal News

The ‘Optics’ may Cost Feds Again this Year by Federal News

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What are the ” optics” of a big federal pay raise or a few hundred recognition awards during a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic?

Apparently, not great. As Federal News Network reported last week, the Trump administration effectively canceled this year’s Presidential Rank Awards. The Office of Personnel Management cited agencies’ ongoing efforts to reopen government and the financial strain the pandemic had created for the American public as reasons for the cancellation. The rank awards usually go to 1-to-3% of the Senior Executive Service each year. Winners receive bonuses worth up to $60,000 in some cases. Regardless of what you think of the cash bonuses or his argument, canceling the PRAs means government, at the very least, won’t have a chance to recognize a group of senior career civil servants who have helped their agencies accomplish the unthinkable this year.

In theory, this kind of recognition is what the Trump administration has advocated for in recent years. Instead of annual, across-the-board pay raises, the administration has repeatedly said it would prefer to focus time and resources on rewarding career federal employees whose performance has gone above and beyond — or those with special or in-demand skills.

In 2021, the Trump administration settled for a kind of compromise: a 1% across-the-board pay raise for General Schedule employees and a push for agencies to devote more resources on special contribution awards.

Congress was never really sold on the idea, or least it wasn’t last year — when lawmakers ushered a 3.1% federal pay raise into law for 2020. But this year seems different.

The House last week continued its silence on federal pay, as the full appropriations committee easily passed the next year’s financial services and general government bill. It made no mention of a federal pay raise for 2021, meaning that in their silence, House members are essentially deferring to the president’s proposed 1% bump.

A group of House members — nine Democrats, one Republican — said civilian federal employees should earn pay parity with the military in 2021. They’re advocating for a 3% federal pay raise for civilian employees. But if Congress wanted to take action on federal pay, now would have been the time to do it.

Those who represent the interests of federal employees were — no surprise — disappointed last week.

“The civilian workforce has not wavered in the face of the ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic and deserves to be recognized and compensated fairly,” Craig Carter, national president of the Federal Managers Association, said in a statement.

So what’s next? If we’re describing hypotheticals here, sure, the House could take this bill to the floor for debate and members could introduce an amendment calling for a 3%. Yes, theoretically, the Senate — if they even get around to writing their own appropriations bills this year — could take a shot at 3% federal pay raise for 2021.

Maybe Congress, in its usual dash to pass a budget for the next year, will throw a 3% federal pay raise in at the last minute.

For now, we have no real indication that a 1% federal pay raise won’t move forward. President Donald Trump already submitted the plan to Congress. That happened before the pandemic. Minds can change between now and December, when the president usually signs those pay raise EOs. 

There is, of course, precedent for much of this. The Obama administration implemented several years of no or minimal federal pay raises. The Presidential Rank Awards also took a year off in 2013, when the Obama administration weighed the message these bonuses might send during an economic recession.

When it comes to federal employees and the “optics,” really, not much has changed.

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