Obama says federal jobs may stay vacant, doesn't rule out furloughs

By Joe Davidson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 15, 2010; 10:16 PM

Facing Republican complaints about big government and federal salaries, President Obama said Friday that government agencies might leave some vacancies unfilled as his administration looks for ways to save money.

He did not rule out furloughing employees, as some states have, but he warned that such action could result in a loss of services for taxpayers.

Speaking to members of the Trotter Group, an organization of black columnists, Obama addressed a range of subjects, including election momentum and campaign financing, the economy and the District's schools.

Obama deflected complaints from Republicans on Capitol Hill and conservative think tanks that federal employees are overpaid.

He said his team has examined pay levels, "and the data we get back indicates that high-skilled workers in government are slightly underpaid. Lower-skilled workers are slightly overpaid relative to the private sector.

"And that's not surprising," he added, "because it's a unionized workforce" in government, while the private sector's typically is not.

Nonetheless, Obama said that just as people and companies have had to be cautious about spending, "government should have to tighten its belt as well. We need to do it in an intelligent way. We need to make sure we do things smarter, rather than just lopping something off arbitrarily without having thought it through."

Obama has asked agencies to develop plans for cutting budgets by 5 percent. But how that would be accomplished would be decided on a case-by-case basis, he said.

"In some cases, they may say we don't need to fill vacancies," he said.

Obama said he wants to achieve "the best possible service at the lowest possible price to taxpayers."

He promised to "certainly do everything I can to avoid more people losing their jobs if they are doing vital services for their constituencies."

If cutbacks are "the only way to achieve the savings," he added, "then we have to make some decisions about what that means in terms of services."

Veterans, for example, "might have to wait longer for their disability claims to be processed. That's something that people object to pretty vigorously, and rightly so, because we've got a sacred trust to our veterans."

Republicans across the country are advocating smaller government as part of this fall's election campaign. The president said "that the Republicans have some momentum," but he said that is not because they are popular.

That was borne out by people surveyed in a Washington Post, Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University study published this week. The respondents gave Republicans in Congress a D-plus, a lower grade than Obama or congressional Democrats received.

Instead, Obama linked the Republican momentum to a Supreme Court decision that allowed corporations to spend freely on elections.

"I would feel very confident about our position right now if it weren't for the fact that these third-party independent groups, funded by corporate special interests and run by Republican operatives, without disclosing where that money is coming from, are outspending our candidates in some cases 5 to 1, 10 to 1.. . . And it's the direct result of a Supreme Court opinion called Citizens United."

He called the opinion "a profoundly faulty Supreme Court decision [that] has opened the floodgates to special interest money, undisclosed, and having a significant impact on the election."

Although there is much talk of an "enthusiasm gap" favoring Republicans this year, Obama said it is remarkable how well his coalition has held together during "extraordinarily difficult times."

He placed responsibility for the bad economy on Republicans.

"We had lost almost 8 million jobs before any of our economic policies had a chance to be put in place," he said. Job growth, he added, "has actually been faster in the last year, in the midst of this crisis, than it was during that period of 2001 to 2009."

Asked about two people who will soon be jobless, Obama did not indicate any plans to bring D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee into his administration.

"I think Mayor Fenty and Michelle Rhee shared a passion for trying to shake up a status quo that wasn't working," Obama said. "And they deserve enormous credit for that."

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