Last Thursday and Friday was a reelection nightmare for Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA).
Just as it was starting to be reported that the GOP establishment might divert financial resources away from Comstock to other Republican reelection races, President Donald Trump put a political shiv in her attempt to win a third term this November by announcing his unilateral decision to cancel the across-the-board pay and locality pay increases for 2 million federal civilian employees and, therefore, harm a great many of the congresswoman’s constituents.
The potential redistribution of GOP campaign support was mostly of interest to contributors and other political insiders, but Trump’s pay freeze was an economic and emotional slap in the face to the thousands of federal employees and the many businesses that rely on them all across Comstock’s district in Northern Virginia. At virtually the same time the government was reporting that inflation had increased to 2 percent, a 6-year high, federal civilian workers were being told that their pay would not be increased to compensate for this loss in buying power.
Comstock quickly issued a statement opposing the pay freeze, but that’s not likely to undo the Trump-caused damage to her reelection. The reality was that Comstock had been unable to prevent a President from her own party not just of taking aim at a substantial number of her constituents but of making a direct hit on their livelihoods, and it was obvious.
The big question is why would Trump do this.
With polls showing that its House majority is very much in jeopardy this election and each currently held GOP seat is precious, making reelection more difficult for even one Republican representative makes no sense whatsoever. This is especially the case because of the reporting last week that the White House is starting to realize how a Democratic majority in the next Congress could investigate the Trump administration’s and family’s activities and policies in ways and to an extent the GOP has refused to do.
The pay freeze also makes no sense as a sop to Trump voters. While there’s little doubt that Trump saw the pay freeze as a way to demonstrate that he is punishing what he and his voters refer to as “the deep state” for its sins, denying cost-of-living adjustments is unlikely to be much of an issue for the president’s base. Trump might be able to use it as a throwaway line at one of his rallies, but his reelection will never depend on it.
It also makes no sense from a federal budget perspective. Although Trump said that fiscal responsibility was the sole reason he was implementing the pay freeze, the savings from doing so are tiny both in terms of a total federal budget that will exceed $4 trillion next year and its projected $1 trillion deficit.
Trump’s reduce-the-budget rationale for his federal pay freeze proposal also seems ludicrous in light of the trillion-dollar revenue loss from the tax bill he signed last year, his demand for $25 billion to build a wall between the United States and Mexico, the $12 billion cost of his decision to compensate farmers for the impact of his tariffs and the unestimated (but likely to be in the billions) cost of a space force.
Finally, the Trump pay freeze makes no sense because it will very likely be reversed by Congress. The Senate has already agreed to do exactly what the president doesn’t want by providing a cost-of-adjustment for federal civilian employees and House Republicans are very likely to support that given how vulnerable they are to losing their majority this November.
Some are suggesting that this was Trump’s plan all along by proposing something that Comstock and other Republicans with a substantial number of federal employees in their congressional districts and states take credit for reversing. And in response to GOP criticism he has already said he would “study” the issue.
But that strategy assumes the White House is capable of playing the political equivalent of multi-dimensional chess, that Congress will actually reverse the pay freeze, that the president will sign the legislation with the reversal in it and, most importantly, that the federal employees who vote in Republican-held districts will forget how angry they were by Election Day.
One or more of these assumptions is almost certain to be wrong. That has to make you wonder what Trump was really thinking.
Follow Stan Collender on Twitter @thebudgetguy.