Republicans seek pay freeze for federal workers; a 'cynical ploy,' Democrats say

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Looking to demonstrate their commitment to balancing the budget, Republicans are increasingly targeting the federal workforce.

In the past month, congressional Republicans have tried to attach to several bills language that would limit pay increases for federal workers. This week, as part of a GOP amendment to a Democratic bill that would spend billions on unemployment benefits and help states fund their Medicaid programs, Senate Republicans are including a proposal that would freeze pay levels for the 2 million people who work for the government.

Similar proposals have failed in the House and Senate, and Democrats probably will vote this one down as well. But Republicans say they are determined to keep pushing the issue, arguing that federal employees should not receive pay increases while many private-sector workers face cuts in pay, hours and benefits, as well as layoffs.

"We're paying too many people too much money," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (Utah), who has pursued the matter as the top Republican on a congressional subcommittee that oversees the federal workforce. "I'd actually like to see [federal salaries] cut."

President Obama has proposed increasing federal workers' pay by 1.4 percent this year, less than recent increases. He has also called for freezing spending at most agencies for the next three years.

At the same time, Democrats argue that the GOP proposal for federal pay is largely symbolic. The national budget deficit last year was more than $1 trillion; the pay freezes would save less than $3 billion.

"We need to reject this cynical ploy to make federal employees a scapegoat for spending after congressional Republicans added trillions to the debt when they were in the majority," Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (Md.) said before the House voted down one of the pay measures.

Randy Ervin, legislative director for the National Federation of Federal Employees, said that if such legislation passed, it would "greatly undermine the ability of federal agencies to recruit and retain a qualified workforce."

Republicans have long raised concerns about public-sector pay. President Ronald Reagan fired 11,000 striking air traffic controllers in 1981 rather than increase their pay. Looking to reduce deficits, a group of governors, mainly Republicans such as newly elected Chris Christie in New Jersey, are backing for limits on state employee salaries.

Republicans at the state and federal levels say that high retention rates in government agencies show that these workers would not command similar wages in the private sector. But supporters of federal pay increases, such as Ervin's group, say that when comparing individual jobs, federal employees often make less than their counterparts in private businesses.

Oil hearings

Congress will take a leading role this week in the reaction to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, summoning not only BP chief executive Tony Hayward but also the chiefs of Exxon Mobil, Chevron and ConocoPhillips. The executives will appear Tuesday before a panel of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. On Thursday, Hayward will make his first appearance on Capitol Hill since the spill.

It won't be the lawmakers' first action on the issue; the Democratic-led Congress has held numerous hearings on the disaster.

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