WASHINGTON – The House on Wednesday voted to freeze the wages of federal workers for a third straight year and put members of Congress on record as opposing a boost in their $174,000 annual salaries.
Republican supporters said their measure, which would freeze federal worker wages through 2013, would save taxpayers $26 billion. It would not apply to military personnel.
The nation's 2.3 million federal civilian workers currently are in the second year of a wage freeze imposed as part of efforts to trim budget deficits. Sponsors said the two-year halt in wage increases will save the government $60 billion.
"We must act now to extend the pay freeze on federal workers and on members' salaries until Washington finally gets its finances under control," said Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Wis., the bill's sponsor.
Republicans also have sought to add a year to the federal wage freeze and have federal workers contribute more toward pensions as ways to pay for legislation, now being negotiated between the House and Senate, to extend a payroll tax cut and federal unemployment benefits until the end of this year.
The pay freeze legislation could have difficulty moving through the Democratic-controlled Senate. In the House, most Democrats opposed the measure, saying deficit reduction should not be carried out on the backs of federal workers. Federal labor groups have strongly opposed an extended freeze.
Still, it was a tough election-year vote for some Democrats reluctant to be seen as supporting a raise for themselves. The salary of rank-and-file members of Congress has remained at $174,000 since 2009 and is unlikely to go up as long as the economy sputters.
"What we have here is a very clever political effort to have members vote either for their pay or against their pay being adjusted," said Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the second-ranking Democrat.
Democrats tried to bring up a separate bill that would have stated opposition to a congressional pay hike, but they were stopped by Republicans. The vote on the pay freeze bill was 309-117, with 72 out of 187 voting Democrats supporting it. Only two Republicans opposed it.
President Obama has proposed ending the pay freeze in 2013, but with a modest 0.5 percent raise.
But Republicans pointed to a Congressional Budget Office report earlier this week that concluded that federal workers, on average, receive total compensation that is 16 percent higher than what their counterparts in the private sector get.
The study found that while federal workers earn about 2 percent more than comparable private sector workers, generous federal pension and other benefit programs boost that difference to 16 percent.
"Those who work hardest to pay taxes are the ones bearing the burden of a bloated federal government," said Rep. Dennis Ross of Florida, like Duffy a Republican freshman. "The contrast between federal government and private sector is troubling."
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said there are now 450,000 federal employees earning at least $100,000 a year.
But Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said more accurate Bureau of Labor Statistics data dispute the CBO findings. "An enormous amount of time and energy is going into studies purporting to show that federal workers are overpaid," said the head of the largest independent federal union. "It is just a foolish drive for the lowest common denominators."
The House also passed, by voice vote, a resolution that would cut House committee budgets by an average of 6 percent in 2012. That reduction, combined with a 5 percent cut last year, would produce savings of $28 million.
The House also voted 395-27 for a bill that would ban use of welfare money in gambling casinos, liquor stores and adult entertainment places such as strip clubs. The House passed a similar provision in December, but it never made it through the Senate.
Many states issue welfare recipients Electronic Benefits Transfer cards with cash benefits. The cards are supposed to assist families with basic needs, including food, shelter and clothing. The cards also provide a way of tracking where benefits are withdrawn, and that's how states discovered the withdrawals at casinos, liquor stores and strip clubs.
The legislation would require states to implement policies to prohibit use of the card in these venues. If a state failed to do that within two years, it would face a 5 percent reduction in its welfare block grant.