House oversight committee requests study of federal pay scale

Key members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee requested an analysis Thursday to help determine the “appropriateness” of the federal pay scale.

In a letter to the Government Accountability Office obtained by The Washington Post, Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.) asked the congressional watchdog agency to “identify the attributes of a modern, effective classification system and the extent to which the GS system is consistent with those attributes.”

Republican House Oversight chairman Darrell Issa of California. (Brendan Hoffman/Getty)
Republican House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa of California. (Brendan Hoffman/Getty)

Issa chairs the oversight committee, and Cummings serves as its ranking member. Farenthold is chairman of the subcommittee that oversees federal workforce issues.

The federal pay scale, known as the “general schedule” or “GS system,” is in its third year under a pay freeze. Congress has not authorized a salary increase for the federal workforce since 2010, although employees have still received additional pay through promotions and merit bonuses.

The Office of Personnel Management released a report last month that showed the average salary for federal employees had risen by about $1,800 during the past two years despite the general freeze on rates.

As of 2012, the average salary for full-time federal workers stood at $78, 467, compared to $76,701 in 2010, according to the report.

The median salary — or the point at which half the rates are higher and half are lower — hit $74,714 last year, whereas it was $69,550 in 2010, the report said.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office released an analysis last year that said:

1.) The federal government paid 16 percent more on average in total compensation, which includes wages and benefits.

2.) Federal employees with no college education earn wages 20 percent higher than their private-sector counterparts.

3.) The most highly educated federal workers — those with doctorate or professional degrees — are paid about 20 percent less than their private-sector peers.

Critics have questioned the CBO’s methodology because it compared employees based on their personal characteristics instead of their job descriptions.

The National Treasury Employees Union argued in a Washington Post opinion piece last year that a proper analysis would simply compare workers at the same level or in the same type of position, since the government pays a uniform rate for each job category regardless of education level, age, race or sex.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics used the NTEU’s preferred method for a report that said private sector employees earn about 26 percent more than their federal counterparts. That figure does not account for benefits.

The debate over federal compensation is likely to heat up again as lawmakers try to negotiate a long-term fiscal plan in coming months.

President Obama requested a 1 percent pay increase for federal workers in his 2014 budget proposal, but Republicans are not likely to comply.

The forthcoming GAO report will help guide the debate as it moves forward. The accountability office will probably begin work on its study in May, according to a committee source who spoke anonymously to discuss the analysis.

For more federal news, visit The Federal Eye, The Fed Page and Post Politics.

To connect with Josh Hicks, follow his Twitter feed, subscribe to his Facebook page or e-mail josh.hicks@washpost.com.

E-mail federalworker@washpost.com with news tips and other suggestions.

Josh Hicks covers the federal government and anchors the Federal Eye blog. He reported for newspapers in the Detroit and Seattle suburbs before joining the Post as a contributor to Glenn Kessler’s Fact Checker blog in 2011.
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Josh Hicks | April 19, 2013