Federal Employees News Digest

Mid-term elections: Expert sees positives for feds in new, split Congress

The mid-term congressional elections completed on Nov. 6 have resulted in many close races, but there’s a clear change of party majority and leadership in the House of Representatives, leaving Congress with split party rule. While many experts note that the new Democratic House will not only likely curb the power of the current Republican White House, they also say that, with each party pushing highly polarized political agendas and showing little sign of compromise, the latest election may simply worsen the gridlock on Capitol Hill. Yet, for feds, there is reason for rising expectations from the new Congress—and indeed many federal employee organizations are celebrating the Election Day outcomes. Some experts are buttressing those hopes, noting that the newly victorious Democrats are more likely to press for fed pay and benefits improvements and Republicans, eager to hang on to  their federal constituents, may follow. Nathan Abse talks this week with one such expert, Kenneth Warren, a political scientist at the St. Louis University, who says feds will likely benefit from the change, in morale, pay and benefits

Q and A with Kenneth Warren

Prof. Warren, as an expert both on the civil service and on politics, let’s start with your take on how the new split rule—with Democrats taking over the House majority, and Republicans retaining the Senate—might affect feds’ morale?

Warren: Well, first of all, the Trump White House has not been kind to [federal employees].  Obviously, having the House taken over by the Democrats, on balance, will increase the federal employee morale. We also know that a majority of federal employees happen to vote Democratic. This is what we know.  Now, a bill to become law has to pass both Houses of Congress and be signed by the President. That’s not going to happen much anymore—or that’s just not going to happen, unless the Democrats agree with what the Republicans want to do. So, we can say it’s likely that the new Democratic Congress won’t be able to do much, positively, but they will be able to block the Republican agenda—in particular, domestically speaking, not so much on foreign policy. So, again, I think we can say that for the most part, federal employee morale should be boosted by the situation with the new Congress, with a Democratic House and a Republican Senate—instead of all-Republican majorities.

Under longtime Republican GOP majorities in the House and Senate, including under the Democratic Obama administration, feds have suffered pay freezes and small pay raises; maybe now Senate Republicans will compromise with House Democrats to yield fewer freezes and better raises?

Warren: I think this is of course quite possible—and perhaps probable. Appropriations—actual spending of money—starts in the House, the House Appropriations Committee, and I think they will likely appropriate more money toward federal employees [pay and benefits]. So, I think this is highly likely, given especially what has happened —in terms of the negative attitude and words toward federal employees, under the Trump administration. I think a lot of things are going to change. Some things that the House will pass, the Senate will reject. But when faced with some other bills, the Senate will not reject them.  That’s because when you stop certain bills, such as spending on employee pay, you do that at your peril because you are making a very clear statement. So, I think it is likely that the Senate will go along on some of these matters.

So, you’ve spoken on fed morale and fed pay—but what about even longer haul, on benefits? Do you think that Senate and House Republican members might be more likely to compromise, seeing that the disdain shown by party leaders toward feds has hurt them in elections?

Warren: I would say, yes, that there are likely to be more compromises, including on federal pay and benefits, both. Why? Because now the House leadership will be led by Democrats, and all the committees will be led by Democrats. That’s a huge change, you know. In fact, think about this, Rep. Maxine Waters will be in charge of finance [the House Committee on Financial Services], and she will be a thorn in the White House side there. Yes, I think compromise on pay and benefits is more likely, compromises that will tend to help federal employees.

Is there anything else you might say on where you think the new Congress is headed, especially with respect to federal employees’ pay and benefits and their other interests?

Warren: I would have to say that all of this calls for much speculation at this point, to get your answers. I mean with such a high level of polarization in our politics these days. You have to say, well, the Republicans were sent a message—a strong message here in these midterms. The outlying areas from cities, the suburban areas, really sent a crushing message to the White House and the Republicans here, with many losses in those areas. A significant number of incumbent Republicans went down. You have to remember how strong a message that really is. The opposition in these races, the Democrats, here, they had to overcome very high barriers to victory here. You don’t start out in a 50-50 Republican-Democrat district. You start out with a gerrymandered district, favoring the incumbent and their party in many of these safe districts. So, you what I am saying is the challengers won not just in a hard race, but a very hard race in these gerrymandered districts, and it shows how unpopular your campaign must have been if you were a losing Republican in those gerrymandered districts.

Can you give a few more details here?

Warren: Naturally the Republicans running out there, they are going to be more and more worried in many of these suburban districts. Why? Because many of those districts are becoming more affluent, and more Democratic, just a fact concerning those who live there. A fellow named John Judis wrote on this coming change some time ago. In any case, let’s look at an example. St. Louis County—one such suburb near me—over time went from, starting in the late 1980s, away from the Republicans to the Democrats. There are many others. And this is what many in the other parties must face, and think about, when they are pushing to hang on in such places. House Republicans are going to be more and more fearful as these districts become more and more young, voting for “green” issues, and tending Democratic , and not liking the current White House. They may want to cut business taxes, and get behind many other conservative issues, but they don’t like the current White House and they might increasingly be turning against the president and currently sitting Republicans.

You’ve mentioned some reasons why—for example, you mention “green” issues; can you elaborate?

Warren: Sure. The point is many of these suburban voters who tend Republican might turn against him. They vote for the president or his party’s members regarding cutting business taxes    and other proposals, but—on the green issues—they are worried about the environment. Even corporate Republicans are bailing on President Trump regarding the environment. They weren’t with him on his pulling the U.S. out of the Paris climate change agreement. Most people find him a big turn-off on the environment—the polls show that the environment is a very bipartisan issue. Overall, the polls are clear and show how bipartisan that is. There are very few people who want dirty water and dirty air.

Finally, some union leaders have speculated that at the very least, the push against federal pay is going to come to a total halt—it’s politically not worth the risk, right?

Warren: I agree with that. I think that it’s pretty obvious now, after this election, that that would be a trend.

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Edward A. Zurndorfer Certified Financial Planner
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