The Conservative Case for a Federal Pay Increase

During the last months of 2015, Congressional leaders passed a budget agreement to fund the federal government through 2017 and avert another potential shutdown. This $1.1 trillion budget agreement raises spending by $66 billion and increases the national deficit by approximately $500 billion. However, despite such massive spending increases, the budget agreement does not give a sufficient pay increase to federal workers, who had their salaries frozen from 2011 until 2013 and have only received meager pay increases since then. Federal workers will see their pay increase by 1.3% on average in the upcoming year.

The budget agreement passed by Congress and signed by the President does not explicitly mention any pay increase. Earlier this year, President Obama included in his annual budget proposal a 1.3% pay increase for federal workers. In the convoluted world of congressional budgeting, the President’s recommendation automatically takes effect if Congress fails to legislate otherwise.
Federal workers should certainly celebrate parts of this recent budget deal. For example, they will not have to endure the uncertainty of another potential government shutdown in 2016. Moreover, according to the Washington Post, this agreement helps to protect federal workers from security breaches that compromised many workers’ personnel files throughout the last year. Federal workers are now entitled to free credit monitoring, and the federal government will reimburse them for any damages resulting from identity theft. However, a 1.3% pay increase is hardly enough to compensate federal workers for their sacrifices in recent years.

Admittedly, on the surface, advocating for a federal pay increase may seem out of place in a conservative magazine. After all, contemporary conservatism appears to be characterized by an intense distrust of anyone affiliated with the federal government. This phenomenon explains why individuals without any government experience (like Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina) are occupying such a prominent place within the Republican presidential field. In addition, fiscal hawks like Ted Cruz ‘92 seem intent upon slashing every possible dollar from the federal budget.
Conservatives believe that the federal government should do a better job prioritizing where it spends money. Although they rightly condemn wasteful government spending and frivolous programs, they do not believe that the federal government should shirk its necessary responsibilities. In fact, conservative opposition to an expansive federal government often arises from the fact that, by getting involved with too many functions, the government becomes less effective at performing its core responsibilities.

That same principle should be applied in this instance. Any organization, including the federal government, has a fundamental responsibility to pay its employees appropriate wages. The government could not function without the contributions of hundreds of thousands of federal workers, and citizens undeniably benefit from having the government run by competent, effective, and qualified employees. Therefore, the budget should devote a sufficient amount of resources towards attracting and retaining capable individuals to work in the public sector. Despite approving $1.1 trillion in government spending, the budget agreement only increased public sector salaries by 1.3%. From a conservative perspective, this is more evidence of the government’s flawed priorities.

Increasing federal workers’ salaries should be a priority because they have been unfairly burdened in recent years. Since 2011, federal workers have either received no wage increases or a small increase of 1%. Meanwhile, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the rate of inflation has been hovering around 2% for the past few years, which means that, in real terms, federal salaries have actually declined during this period.

One may argue that workers in the private sector have lost wages during the recent economic downturn and that federal workers should also be expected to sacrifice. Of course, wages in the private sector are still increasing much too slowly. Average earnings in the private sector have increased by at least 2.8% annually since 2012, which is barely keeping up with inflation but is nevertheless a greater increase than federal employees have seen.

A popular conservative refrain is that “government should be run more like a business,” which perhaps explains the appeal of businessmen in Republican presidential primaries. In 2012 Mitt Romney won the Republican nomination touting his business experience, and in 2016 Carly Fiorina and Donald Trump are both making their private sector background a centerpiece of their respective campaigns.

Of course, due to competition in the marketplace, businesses are more incentivized to lower costs than the government, and this comparison is normally utilized as a justification for greater spending cuts. However, in order to be successful, businesses also have to be willing to invest, and one of their most important investments is their employees. Investing in one’s workforce may be more expensive initially, but it can actually reduce costs in the long run through avoiding major scandal.

The federal government’s debt is a serious problem. However, federal employees are not to blame. According to the Wall Street Journal, the federal government now employs a smaller number of people than at any point since 1966. In the 1950s and 1960s, federal employees accounted for over 4% of the American workforce; today, they only make up 2% of the workforce. Even though the federal workforce is smaller, government is still spending way too much money. Fiscal conservatives should work to scale back the actual drivers of the federal deficit rather than pretend that the federal workforce is the cause.

From an ideological standpoint, conservatives may not approve of the existence of many government agencies. However, this should not be a justification for paying their workers mediocre salaries. First, it is simply unfair to the workers, who have been hired to perform a particular job and deserve to be compensated accordingly.

Moreover, even though conservatives view certain federal programs as being unnecessary, we still rely on the federal government for many important reasons. Many conservatives collect Social Security payments or veterans’ benefits. We all rely upon the government to keep us safe, patrol our borders, and enforce our laws. Therefore, like everyone else, conservatives have an interest in having government run effectively and efficiently, which requires a well-paid workforce.

Working for the federal government can be a thankless job. As conservatives, we must not let our frustration with government as a whole impact the salaries of the many hard-working individuals trying their best to make it function.

Evan Draim is a senior in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs from Mount Vernon, Virginia. He can be reached at

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