Sherk, a fiscal policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, authored a 2010 Heritage Foundation study supporting his argument that the total compensation of federal employees — salary, plus health and retirement benefits — is 30 to 40 percent higher than identical positions in the private sector.  Republican presidential candidates are now taking that study and using it as a base for their political stances on federal employee pay.

But how accurately does Sherk’s study reflect the difference in compensation between the two groups?

During a Washington Post live Q&A Thursday, readers questioned Sherk about the research that made up the study and the details of its findings.  A couple of readers complained that the study is too quick to group all federal workers together, and needed to take factors such as geography and job types into consideration.

Without directly addressing whether or not his study does in fact group federal employees too closely together, Sherk agreed that it is important “not to paint everything the same color.” 

“Just because the data shows, on average, the federal government overpays, that does not mean that every federal worker is overpaid,” he said.  “The current system superimposes the General Schedule system on private pay rates and attempts to find parity, but this is never going to work. The private sector doesn't base pay on anything resembling the G.S. You are always going to have some occupations that are graded as a G.S. 12 (or whatever the number is) that pay less than the private sector does, and then others graded at that level that pay more. You need a more flexible system.”

By the same token, Sherk told readers he did think that federal employee’s pay was a fair place to start much needed budget cuts within the government.  “We are in an era of quite tight budgets,” he said.  “Cuts have to be made, or taxes go up. I think it is quite fair to say that this is a good place to start. Would you rather cut Medicare or Medicaid by $50 billion, or raise taxes? This is why I think the issue has gotten such prominence recently.”

One reader, who said he’s a soon-to-be-retired federal employee of over 40 years, brought up how much more he receives in benefits than in salary.

“There is very little dispute that federal benefits are much more generous than the private sector,” Sherk said.  “The Thrift Savings plan defined contribution style pension match is comparable to what workers at Fortune 500 companies get. On top of that, federal employees get the defined benefit pension…Federal employees should have jobs that are about equally comfortable as those of the taxpayers who pay their salaries. The goal is parity.”

Still, not all readers agreed.

“The only federal workers that are paid more than their civilian counterparts are some of the low level employees,” one reader said.  “Executives in the government have salary caps that limit them to single-digit percentages of some of their industry equivalents salaries. A large majority of the federal workforce makes significantly less then their civilian (to include government contractor) counterparts.”

To see what else readers discussed with Sherk, including a performance-based pay scale and “the turn against federal workers,” read the chat transcript.