Democracy Dies in Darkness

PowerPost | Perspective

Trump labor adviser's plan for cutting federal compensation, potentially even paid holidays

December 17, 2017 at 8:00 AM

President Trump speaks to reporters before leaving the White House on Friday. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

The Trump administration’s consideration of a wage freeze for federal employees is one piece of a renewed multifront Republican push to shrink those workers’ pay, benefits and workforce.

That effort has been around for years, but it now has an intellectual champion in the White House, and I don’t mean President Trump.

Confidential administration information released last week by Sen. Claire McCaskill (Mo.), the leading Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, revealed an administration proposal to freeze federal salaries in fiscal 2019. That is the third piece in a pattern that includes Trump’s 2018 budget proposal to cut the employer contribution to retirement benefits and the House Republican plan to have retirees pay more out of pocket for their health insurance.

Congress did not approve the last two recommendations, and the pay freeze, which Trump can impose, is not beyond the leaked-document stage. Yet the proposals lurk, likely to reemerge in future budget plans after having long percolated in conservative circles.

Watch more!
A series of studies have provided fodder for both sides of the debate on raising the federal minimum wage. Let's take a look at the facts. (Daron Taylor/The Washington Post)

Now, with James Sherk — a chief proponent of the notion that federal workers are overpaid — serving as Trump’s labor adviser, the proposals stand their best chance yet of becoming policies that dig deep into federal employees’ pockets.

Sherk, a labor economist, joined Trump’s team early this year after working for the conservative Heritage Foundation. His co-authored report, “Why It Is Time to Reform Compensation for Federal Employees,” was published by Heritage just days after the 2016 Republican National Convention nominated Trump.

The bottom line: Feds would get less pay and benefits for more work.

“Our paper was intended to serve as a framework for any candidate or elected official who wants to improve the way the federal government operates and offer more competitive options to federal employees,” Rachel Greszler, a Heritage economist who wrote the report with Sherk, said by email Friday.

“Reform” really does not convey the serious bite of their proposals. The central thesis is that federal workers are overcompensated compared with those in the private sector. They outlined a plan to cut those costs — a blueprint that Sherk can now follow from a position of influence in the White House — “to the extent that the administration is willing to take on the labor policies that Sherk has spent much of his career championing,” Greszler said.

Those policies face fierce opposition from Democrats and federal employee organizations.

Policies like Sherk’s “undermine the value this country places on public service by targeting the income security of those who carry it out,” said Richard G. Thissen, president of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association. “Whether caring for our veterans, responding to disasters or just ensuring the day-to-day operation of democratic government, the work these individuals do is vital to our country, and it should be rewarded, not devalued.”

The paper did not call for a pay freeze, but Greszler’s email said that “without Congressional action, it is the administration’s only tool. While a freeze alone doesn’t help achieve a more competitive pay structure (because the current system massively overcompensates lower-skilled workers and provides little to no compensation premium for the highest-skilled workers), it could serve as a bargaining tool for more comprehensive Congressional action.”

Rather than making the government a model employer, the proposals would unite Uncle Sam with employee-regressive business practices designed to maximize profits. But Sam is in the business of service, not propelling profits.

The authors begin by citing three studies indicating that federal compensation is higher than private-sector compensation by at least 16 percent. They ignored Federal Salary Council data saying federal workers earn 34 percent less, on average, than comparable private-sector employees.

Sherk and the White House declined my requests to speak with him, but his published work speaks for itself.

Sherk has argued for years that federal compensation is too high. Consider the title of his 2010 Star Tribune piece: “Who in This Country Has More than They Deserve? Most Federal Employees.”

Really? Seeking to counter that negative notion, he and Greszler want to:

“These policies would boost federal employees’ productivity by increasing the number of days they work,” Greszler and Sherk wrote, “and thus could reduce the number of federal employees needed to carry out government functions.”

One compensation increase they favor is bigger performance bonus budgets, but within a process that would cut average federal pay by five percentage points after implementation of smaller step increases.

Although Sherk has a long-standing interest in federal compensation, none of several federal employee organizations contacted said he had spoken with them since he joined the White House.

“We’ve never heard from James Sherk,” said Steve Lenkart, executive director of the National Federation of Federal Employees. “We don’t know him, and he certainly doesn’t know us or federal employees or families. He doesn’t represent the values that working people share, nor does he understand the complexities of the federal workforce.

“In addition, the cuts and pay freezes being considered by this administration are expected, sadly, because this administration has been forthright in its poor opinion of working people and their families.”

President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, second from right, pose for photographs with the University of Utah ski team during an event with NCAA championship teams at the White House.
President Trump visits the U.S. Capitol to meet with Republicans on the day the House will be voting on its tax bill.
Trump speaks about his Asia trip in the diplomatic reception room of the White House.
President Trump receives a bomber jacket from Air Force personnel during an event at Yokota Air Base at Fussa, near Tokyo.
Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hold up hats they have both signed that read “Donald and Shinzo, Make Alliance Even Greater” at Kasumigaseki Country Club in Kawagoe, Japan.
Trump and Abe meet with their wives Melania Trump and Akie Abe for a dinner at a restaurant in Tokyo.
President Trump and first lady Melania Trump, accompanied by Adm. Harry Harris, left, and his wife Bruni Bradley, throw flower pedals while visiting the Pearl Harbor Memorial in Honolulu, Hawaii.
First lady Melania Trump listens as President Trump speaks with reporters at the White House before departing from the South Lawn in Marine One for a trip to Asia.
President Trump, flanked by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, left, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, speaks during a Cabinet meeting at the White House.
President Trump and first lady Melania Trump pose for a photo with White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her family during Halloween celebrations at the White House.
Trump departs in his motorcade after an afternoon at Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, Va.
President Trump hands out candy to children of journalists and White House staffers for Halloween in the Oval Office.
Trump holds up a presidential memorandum to declare the opioid crisis a national public-health emergency after signing it at the White House.
President Trump takes questions from reporters on the South Lawn of the White House on his way to Marine One before departing for Texas to attend a briefing on hurricane relief efforts.
President Trump and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross pose with winners from the National Minority Enterprise Development Week Awards Program in the Oval Office of the White House.
A protester throws Russian flags as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), center left, walks with President Trump to the Senate Republican policy luncheon on Capitol Hill.
Trump bestows the nation's highest military honor, the Medal of Honor, to retired Army Capt. Gary M. Rose, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House.
Trump and Singapore's prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, shake hands during a joint statement in the Rose Garden.
Boeing Executive Vice President Kevin McAllister, right, and Singapore Airlines chief executive Goh Choon Phong, along with Trump and Singapore Prime Minister Loong, attend a signing ceremony for airplane sales at the White House.
Trump, with U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and national security adviser H.R. McMaster by his side, shakes hands with U.N. Secretary General António Guterres in the Oval Office.
Trump, center right, and Gov. Ricardo Rosselló of Puerto Rico, center left, and others meet in the Oval Office.
Trump, right, listens as Rosselló speaks in the Oval Office.
Trump, flanked by Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), speaks during a meeting with members of the Senate Finance Committee and members of his economic team in the Cabinet Room of the White House.
Trump waits at the West Wing of the White House for the arrival of Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.
Trump meets with Tsipras in the Oval Office.
Trump answers a reporter’s question during a news conference with Tsipras in the White House Rose Garden.
Trump talks with Hope Hicks, White House communications director, between radio interviews at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
Trump speaks during a Cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House.
Trump makes a statement on Iran policy in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House.
Trump, with first lady Melania Trump, speaks to the news media on the South Lawn of the White House.
Trump prepares to hand the pen he used to sign an executive order on health care to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in the Roosevelt Room at the White House.
Trump congratulates Kirstjen Nielsen after nominating her to be secretary of homeland security in the East Room of the White House.
Trump shakes hands with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as Trudeau’s wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, left, and first lady Melania Trump look on from the Oval Office of the White House.
Trump speaks in Middletown, Pa.
Trump honors the NHL’s Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in the East Room of the White House.
Trump departs Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, Va.
Trump speaks at a Hispanic Heritage Month event in the East Room of the White House as Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, left, first lady Melania Trump and Treasurer Jovita Carranza listen.
Trump holds up the signed National Manufacturing Day Proclamation in the Oval Office.
Trump speaks during a briefing with senior military leaders at the White House.
Trump speaks as he and the first lady meet with first responders at the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.
Trump talks with residents during a walking tour with the first lady in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, after Hurricane Maria hit the island.
Trump makes a statement about the mass shooting in Las Vegas from the Diplomatic Room at the White House.
Trump speaks to the National Association of Manufacturers in Washington.
Trump stops to greet people as he walks from the Oval Office to board Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House.
Trump takes a group photo with members of the National Security Council on the steps of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House grounds.
Trump shakes hands with Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy during a meeting in the Oval Office.
Trump and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy hold a joint a news conference in the Rose Garden at the White House.
Trump speaks before signing a memorandum to expand access to STEM, science technology engineering and math, education, in the Oval Office.
Trump greets Sen. Luther Strange at a campaign rally for the Republican in Huntsville, Ala.
Trump meets with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the Palace Hotel in New York.
Trump arrives with first lady Melania Trump, right, and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley for a meeting of the U.N. General Assembly in New York.
Trump speaks during the U.N. General Assembly in New York.
Trump encourages Frank “FX” Giaccio, left, as his father, Greg Giaccio, looks on while he mows the lawn in the Rose Garden of the White House. Trump accepted Giaccio’s offer after he wrote to the president saying it would be an “honor to mow the White House lawn.”
The Trumps and Vice President Pence tour Naples Estates, an area in Florida damaged by Hurricane Irma.
The Trumps participate in a moment of silence at the White House in remembrance of those who died in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Trump and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis greet members of the military after a Sept. 11 memorial service at the Pentagon.
The Kuwaiti emir, Sheikh Sabah Ahmed al-Sabah, and Trump hold translation earphones as a reporter asks a question at a news conference in the East Room of the White House.
Trump and Pence meet with House and Senate leaders at the White House.
Trump speaks alongside Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) as they hold a meeting about tax overhaul in the Roosevelt Room of the White House.
Trump waves as he departs St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington with first lady Melania Trump after they attended services for a national “Day of Prayer” for victims of Hurricane Harvey. Assistant rector D. Andrew Olivo is at center.
Trump gives a little girl a kiss as he and the first lady greet Harvey evacuees in Houston.
The first lady and the vice president look on as the president holds up a FEMA damage-assessment map of Texas.
Trump holds up the Texas state flag after receiving a briefing on Hurricane Harvey relief efforts at a fire station where people gathered to welcome him in Corpus Christi.
Trump shakes hands with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto during their joint news conference in Washington.
Trump shows his signature after signing the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act into law at the American Legion convention in Reno, Nev.
Trump participates in a tour of a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility in Yuma, Ariz.
Trump, with first lady Melania Trump, looks up toward the solar eclipse without glasses from a balcony at the White House.
At the White House, Trump displays a memorandum he signed addressing China’s trade practices.
At his golf resort in Bedminster, N.J., Trump speaks about the violent protests in Charlottesville, that turned deadly.
Trump attends a workforce-development discussion at his club in Bedminster, N.J. From left: senior adviser Jared Kushner, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the president, Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, aide Andrew Bremberg and Ivanka Trump.
Trump speaks to reporters after meeting with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, left, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and national security adviser H.R. McMaster in Bedminster.
Trump and Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, center, talk with a patient via a tablet during the “telehealth” event.
Trump, flanked by Sens. Tom Cotton (R- Ark.), left, and David Perdue (R-Ga.), speaks in the Roosevelt Room during the unveiling of legislation that would place new limits on legal immigration.
White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and Trump shake hands after Kelly’s private swearing-in ceremony in the Oval Office.
Police applaud a line by Trump during remarks about his proposed government effort against the MS-13 gang at a gathering of federal, state and local law enforcement officials in Brentwood, N.Y.
Trump presents the Medal of Valor to U.S. Capitol Police Officer Crystal Griner during the ceremony honoring first responders at the shooting that took place during a Republican baseball team practice in Alexandria, Va.
Trump greets, from left, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), Vice President Pence, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Terry Gou, chief executive of Foxconn, in the East Room of the White House after announcing the first U.S. assembly plant for the electronics giant.
Trump and Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri walk to the Rose Garden of the White House for a joint news conference.
Trump waves to the Boy Scout troops and leaders assembled at the group’s national jamboree in West Virginia.
Trump and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), second from left, stand for the colors during the commissioning ceremony of the “supercarrier” USS Gerald R. Ford in Norfolk.
WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 21: President Donald Trump greets others during a meeting with survivors of the attack on USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC on Friday, July 21, 2017. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Photo Gallery: A look at the second half, so far, of the president?s first year in the White House.

Read more:

[Democrats say Trump to seek federal pay freeze and cuts to domestic security]

[GOP health insurance plan for feds part of larger assault on compensation]

[Trump’s budget calls for hits on federal employee retirement programs]

[Federal employees behind in pay by 34 percent on average, salary council says]


Columnist Joe Davidson covers federal government issues in the Federal Insider, formerly the Federal Diary. Davidson previously was an assistant city editor at The Washington Post and a Washington and foreign correspondent with the Wall Street Journal, where he covered federal agencies and political campaigns.

Post Recommends
Outbrain

We're glad you're enjoying The Washington Post.

Get access to this story, and every story, on the web and in our apps with our Basic Digital subscription.

Welcome to The Washington Post

Thank you for subscribing
Keep reading for $10 $1
Show me more offers