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Federal workers becoming a flash point in midterm elections

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 25, 2010; 3:48 AM

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.

"If the American public knew the data that was the basis for these outrageous claims," said John Berry, the government's personnel chief, "they'd see how ideologically biased it is." With four out of five hires under Obama to defense and homeland security jobs and the Department of Veterans Affairs, "I'd ask, which one of those people would you like to fire?"

Critics cite data that compare all public and private jobs: Federal workers averaged$123,049 in pay and benefits last year, while private workers totaled $61,051 .

Because the government workforce is more skilled on the whole than labor used by private companies that include McDonald's and Wal-Mart, comparing all jobs skews private-sector salaries down, government officials say. The government sets pay scales based on what private employers in different regions pay for comparable levels of work and experience.

A government lawyer generally earns less than a corporate one. When the same work levels are compared, private pay comes out ahead 22 percent, government officials say.

Data released by Berry's office do not offer a government average. But the figures show that a novice government nurse earns $46,148, more than a private one at $39,215. More experienced government nurses trail behind the private sector - $84,652 compared with $124,239.

The issue has been debated before, and not always with Republicans holding the scalpel. Richard Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton downsized the bureaucracy. George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan expanded it, despite Reagan's early vow to slash government's size. Carter criticized the civil service as bloated. Today's workforce size is about the same as it was during the Kennedy administration.

Many conservatives have latched onto civilian pay because they want to eliminate some of government's everyday functions. "When the budget's balanced and government is working, you can't pay federal workers enough," said Thomas M. Davis III, a former Republican congressman from Northern Virginia who chaired the committee that oversees federal workers. He noted that many bureaucrats "are running billion-dollar programs" and should be paid what they're worth.

Henry Brown, who earns $90,000, says the government pays him what he's worth, especially with 23 years as a computer security expert. Yet three of his neighbors in Huntsville, Ala., earn $10,000 more doing similar work for defense contractors.

"This all plays well with tea party activists," Brown said from his home , where he verifies security issues for government background checks for the Office of Personnel Management. "But all these savings they think they're going to get by these cuts? Frosting on the cake."

Tom Webb says critics ignore the valuable service provided by Social Security workers in Falls Church who pore through 700,000 pending disability claims. "There are so many people who rely on us," said Webb, a paralegal earning $115,000 and president of Local 3615 of the AFGE. "We're highly trained. We take very seriously what our mission is."

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D), Davis's successor, called the Republican strategy "insidious" and shortsighted.

"We're going to have a huge recruitment and retention problem as we head out to the future," as baby boomers retire, he said. As for the House minority leader, "he makes more than most federal workers," Connolly said. "Last I checked, that was $193,400."

Staff research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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