Battle royal over federal worker pay

By Joe Davidson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 9, 2011; 10:37 PM

All that Wednesday's House hearing on federal pay needed to be complete was an announcer with a booming voice asking the packed room, "Are you ready to rumble?"

Instead, Rep. Dennis A. Ross (R-Fla.), chairman of the federal workforce subcommittee, called the session to order with the familiar bang of the gavel.

But it didn't take long for things to get hot.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, perhaps gearing up for a run at the Senate seat now occupied by fellow Utah Republican Orrin G. Hatch, vigorously challenged Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry on savings expected to be generated by the two-year federal pay freeze - a freeze Republicans might seek to strengthen by including certain increases that are now exempt.

Dispensing with the polite approach to witnesses he displayed as a freshman last year, Chaffetz sharply insisted the freeze would not save money because employees can still get bonuses, awards and "step" increases based largely on longevity. Later, James Sherk, a policy analyst for the conservative Heritage Foundation, snidely called the step increases "social promotion for adults."

Like a tag team in a pro-wrestling match, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) took over Chaffetz's line of pointed questions and assertions after a break for a vote on the House floor.

"The truth is, there will be pay increases throughout this [freeze] process," said Issa, chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Berry pointed out that awards amount to less than 2 percent of payroll and that even without including awards and step increases, the freeze will save $28 billion over five years.

"The pay freeze for two years is a real sacrifice," Berry said.

But not enough for Republicans.

"I think we have to correct the pay freeze issue," Ross said after the hearing.

He expects legislation will be introduced to include the step or "within grade" increases in the freeze. Another option that he said would be considered is basing retirement income on the top five years of federal pay instead of the top three.

To the consternation of Democrats, Ross, showing no hesitancy in his rookie season on Capitol Hill, had posters placed behind the dais that set the sometimes-contentious tone of the hearing. One said federal employment had increased by 157,000 between December 2008 and December 2010 while private sector jobs dropped by 8.8 million.

"A high school farce . . . the facts be damned," was Rep. Gerald E. Connolly's (D-Va.) characterization of the hearing during a break in the action.

Berry noted that the federal workforce, as a percentage of the nation's population, is "virtually as small today as it has been in the modern era. In 1953, there was one federal worker for every 78 residents," Berry said. "In 2009, it was one for every 147."

Although the pay freeze captured the conversation during the first part of the hearing, that was not advertised as its primary focus.

The question that the hearing was called to consider: "Are federal workers underpaid?"

Berry and Democrats defended federal pay, just as the Republicans did not.

Using data that Democrats certainly did not accept, Ross said federal employee compensation is "nearly four times more than the average private sector worker."

Berry's rebuttal: "Raw comparisons of average pay between federal and private sector employees mask important differences in the skill levels, complexity of work, scope of responsibility, size of organization, location, experience level and special requirements, as well as exposure to personal danger."

"Federal cooks may seem overpaid," Berry added, but not when they "supervise inmates in a clearly dangerous environment." A third of federal cooks work in prisons, he said.

Andrew G. Biggs, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, didn't care for Berry's put-down of studies that overlook differences in federal and private sector workers. Biggs said his study, done with Jason Richwine of the Heritage Foundation, did control for various factors.

"When salaries, benefits and job security are properly valued, the total federal compensation package is worth upwards of 39 percent more than is paid to similar private sector workers," he said.

Job security is a peculiar thing to throw in that mix. Employers benefit as much as workers from a stable workforce, one that includes experienced staffers who know the organization's culture and possess institutional memory.

Biggs dumped on government figures indicating that federal jobs pay about 24 percent less, on average, than those in the private sector.

But Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, defended the government's method while taking a potshot at Biggs and his confederates.

"The witnesses who will claim today that federal employees are overpaid have clear ideological views that I believe should raise serious questions about the reliability of their findings," Kelley said in her statement.

AEI and Heritage, she said, "are putting forth self-serving, self-created data, while we are referring to data from an independent, nonpartisan, credible source."

Max Stier, president of the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service, said during his testimony that the real question isn't whether federal employees are under- or overpaid but how the government can move to a more flexible and market-sensitive system.

"At the end of the day, the federal pay system should allow the federal government to attract, motivate and retain highly qualified workers to carry out the many missions of the federal government," Stier said. "And it should do it as cost-effectively as possible."

Everyone agrees with that. But agreement on what that system looks like is hard to reach.

Staff writer Eric Yoder contributed to this report.

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