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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Federal Pay Raise

Q: Did Obama grant federal workers a pay raise for next year when Social Security recipients are getting no increase?

A: The president acted to hold down the federal pay raise to 2 percent next year.


We’ve had any number of queries recently about whether President Obama is granting federal workers a pay increase in January. Some wonder whether an injustice is being committed given that there will be no annual cost-of-living increase for Social Security recipients.

We’ll leave it to our readers to judge whether an injustice is afoot. Here are the facts:

Under normal circumstances federal workers could have expected a 2.4 percent annual pay increase in January. Federal law pegs pay to the Employment Cost Index, which measures wages and salaries of private industry workers. However, Obama has been pushing since February to hold down that increase to 2 percent.

Update, Dec. 10: Obama succeeded. House and Senate appropriators agreed Dec. 9 to hold the average federal pay increase to 2.0 percent. The House approved the increase Dec. 10 as part of a massive appropriations bill, and the Senate was set to consider the measure the following weekend.

He first called for reducing the pay increase in the budget he submitted to Congress in February. At the time, he noted that he had ordered a freeze of White House senior staff pay and added: "In this budget, federal employees also will be asked to do their part." The House later approved the 2 percent increase, but the Senate Appropriations Committee endorsed a raise of 2.9 percent in July. Then, on Aug. 31, Obama used his executive authority to impose a 2 percent increase starting in January. Congress could still override that order, but the Office of Personnel Management says it will use the 2 percent figure to calculate pay rates for federal workers. This increase will also apply to Supreme Court justices, federal judges and Vice President Joe Biden.

For the record, Obama himself will get no increase. His pay is set at $400,000 a year, the rate set by law and unchanged since 2001. Members of Congress will get no increase next year either, despite some widely circulated claims to the contrary, which we debunked back in September.

Also worth noting is that federal retirees are getting no cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) in their pensions. Their COLA is governed by the same formula that produced a zero increase for Social Security recipients, which we went over in detail on Sept. 23. Both payments are pegged to the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W), which rose sharply in 2008 but has actually declined this year, mainly because of wild fluctuations in the price of oil.

Because their pay is pegged to civilian wages and salaries rather than prices, federal employees got a 3.9 percent pay raise in 2009 when Social Security recipients got a much larger increase — 5.8 percent. In 2010 the situation will be reversed.

-Brooks Jackson


Vogel, Steve. "Obama Budget Would Limit Pay Raises for Civilian Workers, Military." Washington .26 Feb 2009.

Long, Emily. "Senate committee endorses 2.9 percent federal pay raise." GoverenmentExecutive.com. 9 Jul 2009.

"Text of a letter from the president to the speaker of the House of Representatives and the president of the Senate." The White House Office of the Press Secretary. 31 Aug 2009.

"2010 COLA for Federal Retirees : CSRS / FERS." My Federal Retirement Web site. 16 Oct 2009.

"The History of COLA." U.S. Social Security Administration. undated Web page. Accessed 11 Sep 2009.

"Social Security Announces 5.8 Percent Benefit Increase for 2009," press release. U.S. Social Security Administration. 16 Oct 2008.

"Cost-of-Living Adjustment Must Be Greater Than Zero." U.S. Social Security Administration. Web page accessed 11 Sep 2009.