WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama announced Monday a two-year pay freeze for civilian federal workers as he sought to address concerns over high annual deficits and appealed to Republicans to find a common approach to restoring the nation’s economic and fiscal health.
“The hard truth is that getting this deficit under control is going to require some broad sacrifice, and that sacrifice must be shared by employees of the federal government,” Obama told reporters.
The pay freeze amounts to an opening bid as the president and Republican congressional leaders begin jousting in earnest over tax and spending policy. It also illustrates how Obama can use his executive power on occasion to get ahead of newly elected Republicans; they had been talking about making such a move when they assumed control of the House and additional Senate seats this coming January.
But while the move represents a gesture toward public anger over the anemic economic recovery and rising national debt, the $5 billion to be saved over two years will barely dent a deficit that has exceeded $1 trillion for the past two years. And even those savings would be swamped by the multi-trillion-dollar costs of the bigger issue dividing Obama and the Republicans — what parts of the Bush-era tax cuts to extend beyond their Dec. 31 expiration, and for how long.
That issue and others will be on the agenda Tuesday when Obama hosts the House and Senate leaders of each party at the White House for the first time since midterm elections.
Tuesday will also be the last day for emergency federal assistance for about 2 million Americans who have been unemployed for long periods, and Friday a temporary measure providing money for government operations will run out. The two parties are at odds over both matters, with many Republicans opposed to additional unemployment aid and demanding more cuts from domestic spending for the fiscal year that began in October.
Obama nonetheless expressed optimism that the meeting would be a productive fresh beginning.
While Congress has the final word on federal pay, the president’s freeze seemed certain, given the political environment; if anything, lawmakers may go further by cutting pay. Republicans noted that some of them had called for a pay freeze.
The pay freeze Obama announced wiped out plans for a 1.4 percent across-the-board raise in 2011 for 2.1 million federal civilian employees, including those working at the Defense Department, and it would mean no raise in 2012. The freeze would not affect the nation’s uniformed military personnel, and civilian workers who were promoted would still receive the higher pay for the higher grade or position.
The move would save $2 billion in fiscal 2011, which ends Sept. 30, and $5 billion by the end of two fiscal years. Over 10 years, it would save $60 billion, according to Jeffrey Zients, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget and the government’s chief performance officer.