Public servants feel sting of budget rancor

By Karen Tumulty and Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, December 21, 2010; 12:43 AM

Here are two words you don't hear much lately: public servant.

More and more, when politicians talk about government employees - whether they are federal, state or local - it is with the kind of umbrage ordinarily aimed at Wall Street financiers and convenience store bandits.

"We can no longer live in a society where the public employees are the haves and the taxpayers who foot the bill are the have-nots," Wisconsin's incoming Republican Gov. Scott Walker declared this month, as he raised the idea of stripping state workers there of collective bargaining rights.

Outgoing Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who is mulling a GOP presidential bid, also sounded a class-war note last week on the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal: "Unionized public employees are making more money, receiving more generous benefits and enjoying greater job security than the working families forced to pay for it with ever-higher taxes, deficits and debt."

That might sound like standard rhetoric from small-government Republicans. But at a time of staggering fiscal problems, Democrats, who have counted public-employee unions among their most stalwart allies, also are taking a noticeably tougher line.

New York Governor-elect Andrew Cuomo is girding for battle there, warning that state employee salaries and benefits are unsustainable at a time when the state has a $9 billion deficit.

Relative job security with generous benefits that extend into retirement has long been part of the appeal of working for the government. But an eight-hour day in a drab Independence Avenue office building can look like a supremely privileged lifestyle when Americans in the private sector are panicked and furious over what has happened to their own salaries, health coverage and 401 (k)s.

Add to that the growing view that the government has gotten too big and that deficits are going to swallow the economy, and you have all the makings of a backlash.

Three-quarters of those who were surveyed in an October Washington Post poll said they believe federal workers get better pay and benefits than people doing similar jobs outside the government, and 52 percent said government employees are overpaid.

When the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll this month sampled public opinion on the major proposals that were put forward by the president's deficit and debt reduction commission, the most popular by far - and the only one deemed "totally acceptable" by a majority of respondents - was freezing the salaries of federal employees and members of Congress for three years.

Officials of public employee unions say they have felt political wrath before, but that this time, it feels different.

"The extent and the depth of it is new. This is a concerted, deep attack on public employees and public workers," said Gerald W. McEntee, president of the 1.6-million-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. "The problem in the economy has not been created by public workers. It was created by Wall Street, and this political sleight of hand will do nothing to solve the problem."

Nor do he and others in labor see it as a coincidence that all of this is happening at a moment when, for the first time in history, a majority of union members work for the government rather than the private sector, where labor membership has plummeted.

"The balancing of the budget gives them an opportunity that they have seized upon to weaken the public-sector unions, because the public-sector unions are the heart and pulse of the American labor movement," McEntee said.

But there remains the question: Are government workers in fact getting a cushier deal than everyone else?

As with so many other things, the answer to that depends on how you dice the numbers - and on who is doing the dicing.

Much repeated by Republicans is an August review of Bureau of Economic Analysis data by USA Today. It showed that the average salary and benefits of federal employees had grown faster than that of private employees for nine years running, to the point where federal compensation had reached $123,049 in 2009 - more than twice the level of the average private-sector worker.

Other research suggests that once you adjust the numbers for the fact that government workers tend to be older, more educated and more experienced, they show that public employees don't do all that well in comparison.

Also complicating the equation is the fact that while government salaries are often lower than those in the private sector, benefits are often better.

The nonpartisan National Institute on Retirement Security found that, on average, total compensation is 6.8 percent less for state employees and 7.4 percent less for local employees than for comparable non-government workers.

Still others, including Andrew Biggs of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, have countered that the real bonanza for public-sector workers comes after they leave government, because of generous and secure retiree health and pension benefits.

This, too, could be changing. In Virginia, one of only four states where government workers make no annual contribution to their retirement fund, Republican Gov. Robert F. McDonnell proposed on Thursday that 87,000 state employees begin chipping in 5 percent. When combined with a 3 percent pay raise that McDonnell will request from the legislature, it would mean their take-home pay would drop by 2 percent.

A resistance movement may be stirring even in liberal Montgomery County, where spending on health and retirement benefits more than doubled over the past decade.

The new council chair, Valerie Ervin, a labor movement veteran, kicked off an epic battle when she put forward a relatively modest proposal that would have reduced the leverage of the unions in contract disputes. Over the next several months, worker salaries and benefits, which account for 80 percent of all county spending, will come under greater pressure as Montgomery County grapples with closing a $350 million deficit.

Meanwhile, many federal workers felt betrayed when President Obama put a two-year freeze on their salaries as one of his first peace offerings after the Democrats' midterm election losses. The move, which will save $5 billion over the next two years, barely dents a federal deficit that has been running more than $1 trillion annually.

"I was really disappointed in the Obama administration for doing it," said John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees. "It was simply a public relations piece."

Chris Christie, the Republican governor of deeply Democratic New Jersey, has become a folk hero to conservatives - and a YouTube sensation - in part because of his confrontations with that state's educators, whose salaries and benefits he has tried to scale back.

When a teacher complained during a town hall last May that she wasn't being fairly compensated for her education and her experience, the governor retorted: "You know what? Then you don't have to do it."

Even the most revered of government workers are feeling the sting. This month, the Senate blocked a House-passed bill that would have provided $7.4 billion in benefits for the first responders and emergency workers made ill by their work after the Sept. 11 attack. Too expensive, the filibustering Republicans complained.

Resentment of government workers is not entirely new, of course. As far back as the Great Depression, Americans fumed that the Works Progress Administration - the largest employer in the country - was paying people to lean on their shovels.

When Republicans took over Congress in a tide of anti-government sentiment in 1994, strategist Frank Luntz advised in a memo: "Individual programs have friends. Bureaucracies and bureaucrats don't. Therefore, focus the general rhetorical attack on the 'Washington bureaucracy.' "

The political currency of bashing bureaucrats ended abruptly, however, when terrorist Timothy McVeigh in 1995 detonated a truck bomb in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. After eulogizing the 168 people who died there, then-President Clinton vowed never to use the pejorative "bureaucrat" again.

As the country engages in yet another argument that pits government workers against the taxpayers they serve, some worry about the message it is sending to future generations of public employees, even as a significant share of the current generation nears retirement.

"Lost in the discussions are the ones we ought to be having, which are about the quality of the workforce," said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), who counts 56,000 federal employees and at least as many government retirees among his consituents. "Where are we going to get the sophisticated skill set we need for the future, if we're demeaning that service in the first place?"

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