GOP: Too many feds, and they are paid too much

Joe Davidson
Columnist August 29, 2012

The preamble to the Republican platform released at the party’s convention in Tampa says the document provides “a vision of where we are headed.”

Wherever that is, it is not a place many federal employees would want their pay, benefits and workforce to go.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

As a Republican roadmap, the platform points in a general direction but not always to an exact destination. It is less specific and provides fewer details than those previously offered by Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, the presidential and vice presidential candidates.

To get a better idea of what a Republican victory would mean for federal workers, it’s necessary to look at what the Romney campaign and the House budget document, prepared by the committee Ryan chairs, have said about employees, as well as the platform issued Tuesday.

They all agree on two main points: There are too many feds, and their compensation is too high.

Of course, many people strongly disagree with that.

“Despite the fact that many federal agencies are already lacking the necessary resources and staffing, and despite the fact that federal employees have already contributed $60 billion over 10 years through a two-year pay freeze and $15 billion in increased pension contributions, this plan targets the dedicated middle class federal workforce for further cuts,” Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said after the platform was released.

It calls for “adjustment of pay scales and benefits to reflect those of the private sector.”

That would mean a big pay raise if Republicans based their policy on repeated government surveys. But they don’t. For years, under Democratic and Republic administrations, the Federal Salary Council, using Bureau of Labor Statistics data, has determined that federal workers are paid significantly less than their private sector counterparts. The council includes agency officials, union representatives and other pay experts. Its latest report, issued in November, indicates government workers are underpaid, on average, by 26.3 percent.

Republicans ignore or dump on that data and prefer to cite a report from the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that says federal workers are overpaid by at least 30 percent, including benefits.

Romney’s Web site uses the Heritage data and has a more specific prescription than the platform. Romney's site says “federal compensation exceeds private sector levels by as much as 30 to 40 percent when benefits are taken into account. This must be corrected.”

“Path to Prosperity,” the House budget document prepared under the direction of Ryan, in the Wisconsin lawmaker’s role as chairman of the House Budget Committee, says the current freeze on basic federal pay should be extended through 2015, for a total of five years. Ryan, who has become the intellectual standard-bearer of the Republican Party, also wants federal workers to pay more for their retirement benefits.

Romney and Ryan point to a Congressional Budget Office report that says “overall, the federal government paid 16 percent more in total compensation than it would have if average compensation had been comparable with that in the private sector.”

Democrats and union officials have strenuously criticized the methodology of both the Heritage and CBO reports, saying they do not take into account differences in the work done by federal and private-sector employees with similar education and titles. As Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry asked when the CBO report was released, should a forklift operator at a furniture warehouse get the same pay as one who moves nuclear materials?

Not only are federal employees paid too much but the platform and the Romney and Ryan documents say there are too many of them. They all say the workforce should be cut by 10 percent through attrition. But again, Romney and Ryan are more specific than the platform, which provides no guidance on when or how the reduction should happen.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, decried the Republicans’ plans, saying they ignore the fact that “the federal workforce is smaller today than it was under President Reagan.”

“Believe in America,” Romney’s economic plan, says the workforce cut could be achieved by hiring one person for every two who leave the government. Romney's plan indicates it would not be across the board but would allow “the president flexibility to allocate the new hiring to those areas where additional resources could be put to most effective use.” Ryan’s budget calls for a one-for-three reduction to take place over three years.

National security agencies would be exempt from hiring limitations under Ryan’s plan. Because national security agencies make up such a large portion of the federal workforce, cuts to other agencies apparently would have to be more than 10 percent to get the overall reduction his plan envisions.

Where that meat ax would fall remains to be seen.

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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