Joe Davidson's Federal Diary

By Joe Davidson
Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Michael Keller has worked on five continents during his 15 years in the foreign service. He's been in Germany, where the standard of living is pretty good, and the Central African Republic and Cambodia, where he could only hope that his three children suffered nothing more than bumps and bruises because of poor medical care.

He likes his work, but he's always confronted with a big source of frustration -- the overseas pay gap.

When State Department diplomats are posted abroad, they lose locality pay. That's the amount added to a federal worker's salary based on where they work.

Since 1994, when locality pay started, the increase for federal employees in the D.C. area has amounted to almost 21 percent. Moving overseas from the State Department's Foggy Bottom headquarters and other area installations means workers lose that differential.

"It doesn't fundamentally undercut my commitment to the career," said Keller. Currently he's the director of economic and commercial studies at the National Foreign Affairs Training Center in Arlington, but he was speaking for himself.

"I didn't join the foreign service for the pay."

But neither man nor woman can live on the love of public service alone.

Money helps.

There is support, on Capitol Hill and in the administration, for legislation that would close the gap. Committees in the House and Senate have approved such measures.

"We have always supported reducing or eliminating the pay gap between what people receive in domestic positions versus what they receive overseas," said Linda Taglialatela, a deputy assistant secretary of state.

But that support has not moved Sen. Tom Coburn, the Oklahoma Republican physician also known as "Dr. No." He's earned that nickname because he relentlessly uses a Senate procedure to hold up bills that require additional federal spending unless the legislation provides money to pay for its project.

"Congress should be focused on improving conditions of workers who have lost their jobs or may lose their jobs and not on handing out huge raises to foreign service officers who already receive very generous benefits overseas," said John Hart, Coburn's communications director.

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