WASHINGTON -- Should more than 800,000 furloughed federal workers get back pay once the government shutdown ends?
Some members of Congress think so, as the House of Representatives is expected to vote Saturday on a measure to retroactively pay furloughed federal workers once the shutdown that began Oct. 1 is over.
But an act that was once considered routine – the government shelled out $1 billion in back pay after the 1995 and 1996 shutdowns – isn’t a slam dunk. Concerns about deficits and soaring debt, the emergence of the tea party in Congress, and a seeming disdain toward the federal government and its employees among some conservatives could make passage a challenge.
Several lawmakers support the House bill authored by Rep. James Moran, D-Va., as well as a similar Senate measure written by Maryland Democrat Benjamin Cardin.
The White House backs the retroactive pay measures. Obama administration officials have criticized the Republican-controlled House for passing “piecemeal” spending bills instead of a stopgap measure to fund the entire government without defunding or delaying the Affordable Care Act.
“The back pay is not piecemeal,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said. “That’s something that Congresses have done every time there’s been a shutdown, as I understand it.”
But there is resistance.
Some lawmakers such as Republican Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina and Charles Grassley of Iowa say the country has too much debt this time to award back pay.
“I think it’s way too early to even consider that, but again we’re $7 trillion more in the hole than we were (in 1995-1996),” Burr told The Huffington Post this week. “It makes it that much more difficult.”
Some commentators also rail against federal employees.
“I’m sick and tired of a massive, bloated federal bureaucracy living on our backs, and taking money out of us, a lot more money than most of us earn in the private sector, then getting a furlough, and then getting their money back at the end,” Fox Business Network host Stuart Varney said this week on a Chicago news radio show. “I want to punish these people.”
Called the Federal Employee Retroactive Pay Fairness Act, Moran’s bill is only a paragraph long. It states that “Federal employees furloughed as a result of any lapse in appropriations, which begins on or about Oct. 1, 2013, shall be compensated at their standard rate of compensation, for the period of such lapse in appropriations, as soon as practicable after such lapse in appropriations ends.”
The bill is short on verbiage but it’s a big deal to workers like Dan Shultz and to communities across the country with heavy concentrations of government workers.
“We’re being held hostage,” Shultz, a corrections officer at the Federal Correctional Complex in Victorville, Calif., said after a Capitol Hill rally sponsored by the American Federation of Government Employees. “We feel like a soccer ball in a disgusting game between the Republicans in the House and Democrats in the Senate. They’re trying to show how hard they can kick us and how long they can kick us just to prove who’s tougher.”
Shultz said that while he appreciates Congress taking up the back-pay issue, he worries what he’s going to do in the meantime when his monthly bills arrive.
“All I can do is call the electric company and tell them I’m a federal employee,” said Shultz, president of his AFGE local. “I can’t do that at the grocery store.”