President Trump’s plan to freeze federal workers’ pay,* and his defense of it, expose a vacuous president, flailing. But his policy is only slightly less coherent and rational than the 2011 freeze that Obama ordered.
In a letter to Mitch McConnell, Trump indicated that he will deprive federal workers of their scheduled 2.1% increase due to inflation because, “We must maintain efforts to put our Nation on a fiscally sustainable course, and Federal agency budgets cannot sustain such increases.”
Trump’s critics, such as Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono, rightly noted the “jaw-dropping hypocrisy,” of the plan, given that budget deficits are reaching $1 trillion after the enactment of Trump’s tax cuts, which primarily benefited the top 1% of Americans.
This is an important and damning criticism. But more needs to be said, as the freeze itself and Trump’s defense of it encapsulates Trump’s ignorance, incompetence, and hypocrisy in an unusually thorough way.
Remarkably, Trump’s defense of the freeze implied an admission of failure on the two major, purported goals of his tax cuts: producing deficit neutral growth and increasing wages.
Like Reagan’s tax cuts, which transformed the U.S. from a creditor to a debtor nation, and George W. Bush’s tax cuts, which squandered Clinton’s surpluses, Trump’s cuts are growing the deficit. Trump has admitted this by arguing that inflation-adjusted wage increases for federal workers are not “fiscally sustainable.” For Trump, the error of the tax cuts has already been so severe and irreversible that government employees must sacrifice, even in an economy nearing full employment and consistent GDP growth, just to dent the deficit.
Also implicit in Trump’s remarks is the fact that hourly wages have stagnated during his presidency (decreasing by .2% last year, adjusted for inflation), as he claimed, “people don’t want to give [federal workers] the increase, they haven’t had one in a long time.”
But while it is true that real wages have stagnated under Trump, and for decades prior under other presidents, U.S. workers have consistently received the sorts of inflation-adjusted raises that federal workers were scheduled to receive in 2019. That is what real wage stagnation is; workers earning raises that approximately equal the rate of inflation. If their non-inflation adjusted wages had actually frozen, as federal workers’ will next year, they would be suffering real wage losses, not stagnation.
Trump is apparently ignorant of what real wages or even inflation is, and as a result, subjects federal workers to a real wage cut that he wrongly views as an innocuous freeze. Cut two million wages because as president, you do not understand inflation? For the confidently incompetent Trump, such an error is commonplace enough that it has passed without much public comment.
But the most revealing aspect of the wage freeze is its effect on veterans, which Trump is apparently unconcerned about. Trump won votes railing against the Veterans Affairs (VA), and has received positive press for signing a bill that aims to decrease the VA’s backlog of disability claims. This backlog compels veterans applying for disability ratings to wait for many months, and often years, before they receive an initial ratings decision, or a decision on an appeal.
The wage freeze is a theft of veterans’ disability pay, by other means. A full 30% of federal workers are veterans, and a disproportionately high percentage of them are disabled, since both veteran status and disabled veteran status earn applicants preference points towards gaining federal employment.
And since disability compensation (for unmarried vets with no dependents) ranges from $1635/year for a disability rating of 10% to $35,686/year for a 100% rating, some federally employed veterans will effectively lose their entire disability pay because of Trump’s freeze, and all will lose a significant portion. If, for example, you earn $100,000 in the federal government, Trump’s freeze will cost you $2,100 every year, which would more than negate pay for a 10% disability rating, and consume most of the $3,231 that a 20% rating earns.
Add to this those wages that federal workers lost during Obama’s three-year wage freeze (2011 through 2013) and one wonders why our government views hiring preferences to veterans as benefiting them at all. It’s actually astonishing. The government used its power to hire more veterans and then cut their wages about as often as they could get away with. Classic bait-and-switch. Federal employment, it turns out, has helped veterans about as much as payday loans.
As if to punctuate his stunning ineptitude, Trump actually retweeted comments from Corey Stewart that criticized his 2019 wage freeze. He likely did so because Stewart also criticized Obama’s freezes, and praised Trump for reconsidering his freeze.
The awesomeness of Trump’s incompetence on this issue alone is almost sublime. To recap: Trump uses his executive power to freeze federal workers’ salaries, citing the deficits created by his “budget neutral” tax cuts as the reason. He further defends the freeze by implying that private sector workers’ wages have stagnated (and declined in real terms) during his presidency. And this is not even true, as changes in real wages have been closer to 0% in the Trump era than the -2.1% that federal workers will suffer. Trump then retweets implied criticisms of his own wage freeze. But instead of then reversing course, and undoing the freeze, which would make the retweets seem sensible, Trump apparently forgets about the issue altogether. In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of federal workers, including many Trump-supporting veterans, will lose wages, and now feel alienated by their government, two months before an important election.
But if Obama is infinitely more intelligent, sensible, and pragmatic than Trump, what can be made of his record of federal wage cuts? During an economic recovery in which the top one percent enjoyed almost all of the gains, Obama thrice decreased federal wages; the only wages in the country that he directly controlled.
Apologists will claim that Obama’s freezes resulted from his fiscal responsibility, as opposed to his desire to grandstand against public workers. If so, then why did Obama extend the Bush tax cuts shortly after? Yes, those extensions were part of a compromise in which Obama won some progressive concessions. But the notion that federal wage cuts should counterbalance billionaires’ tax cuts in a most ironic “shared sacrifice” is as absurd as any defense of Trump’s wage cuts.
Worse, the unilateral nature of Obama’s freezes belies the fairy tale that he was a “progressive who gets things done.” If Obama thought the freezes were good policy, he could have nevertheless pretended otherwise and offered them to the GOP in exchange for progressive policy. His not doing so suggested that he wanted credit for the freezes, perhaps to ingratiate donors and the David Brooks types who influence them.
Better yet, Obama could have left the bargaining to the American Federation of Government Employees, the union that represents federal workers. But Obama’s desire to cut federal wages was apparently greater than his reverence for unions and their collective bargaining rights. The AFGE is now suing Trump over his freeze, but their victory would seem less likely after the precedents that Obama has set.
Trump announced his freeze over two weeks ago, and although Trump has defended it in his typical incoherent, raving, headline-grabbing way, it has already nearly vanished as a topic of public interest. One reason is that more Trumpian drama, per usual, has replaced it. Last week, it’s the “internal resistance op-ed.” Who knows what next week?
But another likely reason is that one cannot properly savage Trump over the wage freezes without recalling that Obama’s were equally hypocritical, unjustifiable, and contrary to his ostensible political goals. Thus, on this issue, like too many others, Trump looks far less awful, next to Obama, than he should. Those who would resist Trump (and future Trumps) would be well advised to resist the Trumpian actions of their own leaders.
*Author’s note: Full disclosure: my wife is a federal employee.