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Debt-reduction proposals add fuel to criticism of government workforce

By Joe Davidson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 11, 2010; 7:12 PM

If federal employees didn't read the handwriting on the wall when Republicans won the House last week, they shouldn't miss the red lights that began flashing with the release of sweeping proposals to rectify the nation's finances.

The recommendations, by Alan K. Simpson, a former Republican senator from Wyoming, and Erskine Bowles, who served as White House chief of staff in the Clinton administration, would hit federal employees hard, freezing their pay and reducing their numbers.

Everyone, inside and outside of government, would take a blow under their controversial suggestions. And the proposals are by no means final. The draft documents released Wednesday by Simpson and Bowles, co-chairmen of the bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, represent only their ideas. There's no guarantee the commission will adopt their plan in the panel's final report, which requires approval by at least 14 of the 18 members. Some members of Congress wasted no time in blasting the blueprint.

Yet the report indicates a shift in the atmosphere surrounding the federal workforce. With their bipartisan pedigree, offered by two men who aren't gunning for quick headlines, the draft proposals give an increased level of support and legitimacy for some of the points Republicans have made about federal pay and staffing.

For months, GOP lawmakers have called for cutting or freezing the size of the federal workforce and employees' compensation. These calls have fueled an image of bloated, budget-busting feds that sharply conflicts with the public service motivation that really drives them, especially those who could earn much more in the private sector.

Bureau of Labor Statistics figures indicate that while lower-level federal employees on average are overpaid when compared with their private sector counterparts, mid- and upper-level federal workers are underpaid. Despite challenges by critics to official data, federal workers average about 24 percent less pay than people in comparable private positions, a gap that has increased in the past year, according to government officials. The proposed federal pay raise for next year is 1.4 percent. Federal pay adjustments, by the way, are based on changes in the cost of private labor around the country.

One thing Republican and the Simpson-Bowles proposals to cut the federal workforce both do is ignore what those cuts would mean for public service.

Does anyone really want to lengthen the time it takes veterans to have their claims processed, or for the elderly or disabled to navigate the Social Security system? Are we willing to have fewer safety reviews of our nation's mines and factories? Should a wink and a nod pass for our food inspections and drug approvals?

Federal employees are willing to sacrifice for the good of the nation. But what services are federal critics - or Simpson and Bowles - willing to sacrifice?

Although many barbs flung at federal employees are based on sensational, incomplete or misleading reports and headlines, the documents released by Simpson and Bowles are sober, somber and must be taken seriously, even if all of their suggestions are not adopted.

The proposals are agenda-setting. They put bad-tasting medicine on the table for everybody. The fact that the pain could be spread so broadly takes fed-bashing out of the equation. This allows the sacrifices that federal employees, retirees and their families may be forced to make seem more reasonable to the public than when similar ideas are pushed primarily by those who feed on deceptive stories or think almost any government, outside of defense and homeland security, is too big.

Here's some of what Simpson and Bowles propose:

l Freeze federal salaries, bonuses, and other compensation at non-defense agencies for three years, saving $15.1 billion.

l Cut 10 percent of the federal workforce, about 200,000 positions, by 2020 by hiring only two workers for every three that leave, saving $13.2 billion.

l Eliminate 250,000 positions for non-defense contractors, saving $18.4 billion.

l Raise health insurance fees for federal civilian retirees, saving $12 billion between 2012 and 2020.

l Freeze federal salaries, bonuses, and other compensation at the Defense Department for three years, saving $5.3 billion.

l Cut defense service contracting positions by 4 percent, saving $5.4 billion.

l Freeze noncombat military pay at 2011 levels for three years, saving $9.2 billion.

Other measures would have a major impact on retirees. The chairmen suggested basing civil service retirement payments on the five highest paid years of government work instead of the three highest. Citing Congressional Budget Office figures, the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association said this would reduce a Civil Service Retirement System annuity by an average of $7,148 over five years. A Federal Employees Retirement System annuity would be cut by an average of $2,322 during the same period.

The plan calls for significantly increased retirement contributions by FERS retirees. Changing the way cost-of-living adjustments are determined for Social Security, federal civilian and military retirement payments would result in lower benefits for seniors, according to NARFE.

"Federal labor is open and more than willing to do their part," said Matthew S. Biggs, legislative director of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, as long as they don't carry an unfair burden.

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