Upon hearing President Barack Obama’s call for a two-year pay freeze for federal civilian workers (military excluded), many private sector workers must’ve thought: “The feds haven’t done that already?”
No, they haven’t, but now Congress has an opportunity to do what state and local governments have begun doing: put employee pay and benefits under the sustainability microscope.
Initially, the Obama budget called for a 1.4 percent cost-of-living increase for civilian workers, but voters showed up earlier this month and expressed concern over ballooning budget deficits and the size of government. Republican leaders started the call for a salary freeze, and the Obama deficit panel suggested one, too. Now that the president is on board, Congress ought to adopt this idea while looking for other opportunities to control federal pay and benefits.
As with calls for state and local employee unions to share in the sacrifice that many workers in the private sector have made, federal union leaders are reacting to this proposal by missing the point.
American Federation of Government Employees President John Gage complained that the president is “attacking” federal workers, telling the Washington Post, “The American people didn’t vote to stick it to a VA nursing assistant making $28,000 a year or a border patrol agent earning $34,000 per year.”
Note the careful selection of lower-paid workers, which is designed to elicit maximum sympathy. Most federal employees are paid much more than that. In fact, USA Today reports that the average federal worker makes $123,000 annually when combining salary ($82,000) and benefits ($42,000).
Meanwhile, National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association President Joseph A. Beaudoin told the Post, “We understand the purpose of shared sacrifice. But federal employees and their families once again are being singled out.”
Singled out? It’s more accurate to say they’re one of the few groups to have averted the pain of the recession. Federal compensation, according to USA Today, has risen nearly 36 percent faster than inflation since 2000, while private compensation grew 8.8 percent.
It’s this trend of public pay flourishing while private pay stagnates that is untenable. It’s no different than when the private sector began cutting labor costs and laying off workers. Companies weren’t attacking their employees; they simply couldn’t sustain the labor costs and keep their doors open.
In turn, those same workers cannot be expected to foot the bill for the current federal work force, which has grown by 137,300 people, or 6.6 percent, since the beginning of 2009. Furthermore, there is a significant budget deficit that needs to be addressed.
The bottom line is … well, the bottom line. The feds cannot continue to take on new pensioners, offer Cadillac health care plans and increase pay while tax revenue dries up.
A two-year freeze will give Congress ample opportunity to overhaul federal compensation for the long term.