Federal workers will get a smaller pay raise next month because President Bush is freezing part of the increase, citing a national emergency because of the fight against terrorism.
Bush's decision is yet another blow to the civilian federal work force, which has been the target of sweeping changes in the government bureaucracy.
"The same week the president claimed victory on the creation of the Homeland Security Department, he is sending the wrong message to the employees who will work there," Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said Saturday.
Hoyer, the ranking Democrat on House Appropriations subcommittee on the Treasury, postal service and general government, said he plans to fight in Congress next year for a bigger pay raise.
"Federal employees from the CIA to the CDC to the Defense Department are on the front lines of efforts to protect our communities from terrorists. Anything less than the 4.1-percent pay adjustment sends the regrettable message that the services they provide to America every day are not valued," the congressman said.
In a letter sent Friday to congressional leaders, Bush announced he was using his authority to change workers' pay structure in times of "national emergency or serious economic conditions" to limit raises to 3.1 percent.
Most federal employees also were to receive a second pay hike based on private-sector wages earned in metropolitan areas. But Bush said that increase would be too expensive and "inappropriate" at this time.
"A national emergency has existed since Sept. 11, 2001," Bush wrote. "Such cost increases would threaten our efforts against terrorism or force deep cuts in discretionary spending or federal employment to stay within budget. Neither outcome is acceptable."
The White House quietly divulged the cut in an e-mail to reporters late Friday, the middle of a long holiday weekend in which government and politics weren't likely to be on most Americans' minds.
Military personnel still will receive a 4.1 percent increase and aren't affected.
"This is just another slap at federal employees," said Bobby L. Harnage Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 600,000 federal workers. The Bush administration says "they want to recruit the best and the brightest, but they can't even keep the best and the brightest in those jobs now."
Earlier this month, the administration announced it wants to let private companies compete for up to half of the 1.8 million federal jobs. Also, Bush sought and won broad powers to hire, fire and move civil service-protected workers in 22 agencies being merged into the new Homeland Security Department.
"It's been a tough year for federal employees," said Paul Light, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and an expert on the federal work force. "I don't think any one of them will be surprised. It's one of several lumps of coal in the stocking this year."
The White House couldn't say exactly how many federal employees would receive the reduced pay raise, but said it would be almost all.
Congress was pushing for a 4.1 percent increase next year for civilian workers to match what military personnel will receive. But the legislation, which passed the House, got stalled in the Senate as time ran out. Federal employees got a 4.5 percent raise this year.
Bush, who originally sought a 2.6 percent raise for 2003, authorized a 3.1 percent increase and slashed the boost in so-called locality pay, the extra money most federal workers get to bring government salaries closer in line with what private employers are paying in the same metropolitan areas.
More than 30 metro areas have been designated for locality pay. They include New York, Boston, San Francisco, Dallas, Houston, Cincinnati, Orlando, Kansas City and Washington D.C.
The White House estimated that the pay gap between private and government workers averages about 18.6 percent. Because of the gulf, partial increases typically get granted since the program went into effect in 1994 to help lessen the divide.
Bush said authorizing the full raises would cost about $13.6 billion in 2003, or $11.2 billion more than he proposed for the year. It is a cost the nation can't bear as it continues to battle the war against terror, he said. The president did not address a possible partial increase, nor indicated whether he ever considered one.
The president noted that the 3.1 percent raise still is more than the current inflation rate of 2.1 percent.
"I do not believe this decision will materially affect our ability to continue to attract and retain a quality federal work force," he said.