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Reparations commissioners slated for top federal pay grade that hasn’t existed since 1978

Commissioners — charged with considering a national apology and reparations for slavery — are to be paid under the bill at GS-18 level, the top pay grade for federal workers until passage of the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act.

Published: February 19, 2021 2:11pm

Updated: February 23, 2021 3:25pm

The Democrats' proposed slavery reparations commission legislation contains an outdated provision that designates top-tier GS-18 federal pay for each member of the commission it establishes.

According to the Office of Personnel Management, the highest pay grade for federal civil service employees is currently the GS-15 level, which goes up to $172,500.

The Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act sets up the commission to "address the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery in the United States and the 13 American colonies between 1619 and 1865 and to establish a commission to study and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations for the institution of slavery." The 13 colonies were under the control of Great Britain until the U.S. gained its independence in 1776.

If passed and signed into law, the bill would require the commission to "recommend appropriate remedies in consideration" of its findings after studying reparations and the history of slavery. 

According to the legislation, the 13-member commission would be comprised of "persons who are especially qualified to serve on the commission by virtue of their education, training, activism or experience, particularly in the field of African American studies and reparatory justice." According to the legislation, "seven members of the Commission shall constitute a quorum, but a lesser number may hold hearings." 

Each member of the commission would be paid at "the daily equivalent of the annual rate of basic pay payable for GS–18 of the General Schedule." The language of this portion of the bill appears to be outdated because the federal government's top pay levels of GS-16 through GS-18 ended with the passage of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978.

According to an official summary of the bill, it repealed "the provisions of law relating to the special authority of agencies to (1) appoint individuals to positions at GS-16, GS-17, and GS-18 of the General Schedule, and (2) establish scientific and professional positions outside of the General Schedule."

The top-tier pay grade for civil federal employees is currently GS-15. According to the Federal News Network, GS-15 pay for 2021 maxes out at $172,500 per year, including the 1% pay increase that "the vast majority of federal employees" received. Beyond GS-15, there is the elite Senior Executive Service, which is comprised of positions "just below the top presidential appointees," according to OPM. These positions are part of a performance-based pay system, and the "applicable maximum rate of basic pay for the SES is $199,300."

The reparations bill specifies that compensation for the commissioners would include pay for each day, including travel time, "during which he or she is engaged in the actual performance of duties vested in the commission." The total cost of the bill is estimated at $12 million. 

The House bill, which has 162 Democratic co-sponsors, was introduced by Texas Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee. The Senate version that was introduced by New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker has 17 Democratic co-sponsors. The bill was first introduced by former Michigan Democratic Rep. John Conyers in 1989.

Just the News found the original 1989 text of the bill, and it specifies that commissioners would be paid at the GS-18 level — which appears to indicate that the compensation provision of the current version of the bill has not been updated in the ensuing decades.

Since the latest version of the bill still cites GS-18 for the commissioners' compensation, it is unclear if the commissioners would be paid at the top GS-15 level or the Senior Executive Service level.

The offices of Jackson Lee and Booker did not return a request for comment about the federal pay provision of the legislation. 

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