Federal workers becoming a flash point in midterm vote

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By Lisa Rein
Saturday, September 25, 2010

From her sixth-floor office at the National Science Foundation in Arlington County, Carter Kimsey earns $155,500 a year helping to conceive and oversee federal research grants to the nation's smartest scientists.

Kimsey doesn't see herself as overpaid. But now, the 63-year-old civil servant and almost 2 million other federal workers are in the cross hairs during this midterm election season. With 14.9 million Americans unemployed and private-sector wages stagnant, Republicans hoping to win back Congress in November have seized on the salaries and size of the federal workforce as symbols of overspending by the Obama administration.

In their campaign blueprint released this week, GOP lawmakers proposed a hiring freeze on non-security federal workers to help slash $100 billion in government spending. On Capitol Hill, they've tried to block President Obama's proposed 1.4 percent pay increase, to furlough federal workers for two weeks to save $5.5 billion, to fire workers who owe federal taxes, to shrink the pool of political appointees, to freeze bonuses and even to shut down the government. None of these ideas has gotten much traction in the Democratic-controlled Congress, but the resurgence of a GOP majority after the November elections could change that.

Democrats and unions are fighting back with a fury. The American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal union, has launched radio ads geared to suburban and independent voters, depicting civil servants as trusted workers who will protect Americans from terrorists and deliver Social Security checks on time. Sen. Ted Kaufman (D-Del.) routinely singles out high-performing federal employees in floor speeches.

Republicans have focused on the swelling size of the workforce as what they say is evidence of an administration out of touch with the average American. "When you look at family incomes under $40,000 per family, people look at federal workers making twice what they're making," said Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who as a member of Congress earns $174,000. "People are naturally going to have an eye toward some of kind of fairness."

House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) told a crowd in Cleveland last month in a speech on the economy: "We've seen not just more government jobs, but better-paying ones, too." Taxpayers are subsidizing "fattened salaries and pensions of federal bureaucrats" who are helping choke the economic recovery, he said.

Under Obama, the civilian workforce has grown by about 164,000 jobs to a total of 1.9 million, according to the database FedScope. Eighty-five percent of those jobs are outside Washington, many in the congressional districts of members who are leading the curb-government fight.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) says that while a new National Security Agency building is rising in his district, it has not changed his view that the workforce needs to shrink. "My constituents see that federal workers have a rich compensation package and rich health-care benefits," he said. "And there are new federal bureaucrats who wake up every morning and regulate things. Their jaws drop."

Kimsey says she sympathizes with the GOP position - to a point. In her view, she's devoted her career to public service and passed up the opportunity to earn a much higher salary at a private science foundation.

"There's a lot of pain in our country right now," she said. "It's valid to look at what something costs. But you always have to be careful of the generalizations that are easy to make."

Politically charged reports from conservative and liberal think tanks have inflamed the debate. They claim that federal employees are earning a "premium" of anywhere from 22 to 50 percent (depending on whether benefits are compared), a position contested by federal officials. The view is that new hires under Obama and the premium are helping to drive the deficit and discourage private investment that could boost the economy.

So are federal employees overpaid? It depends on who's measuring. Democrats say a public-private pay gap exists, but in the other direction: The government lags behind the private sector by 22 percent.


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