Republican presidential candidates at the recent Bloomberg-Washington Post presidential debate in Hanover, N.H. (Justin Sullivan/GETTY IMAGES)

Republican candidates generally agree that the federal workforce is overpaid when compared to private sector employees. Much of those criticisms originate with GOP lawmakers who raised the issue during the 2010 midterm elections.

Last week we highlighted Mitt Romney’s ideas on fiscal policy, a series of proposals focused primarily on entitlement reform and balancing the federal budget. But he earned cheers at Friday’s Americans for Prosperity conference when he singled out the federal workforce as a target of his proposed spending cuts.

“Since President Obama took office, the number of federal workers that make over $150,000 a year has more than doubled,” Romney said. “I insist that we limit the salaries and benefits of public workers to those which exist in the private sector. Public servants shouldn’t get a better deal than the taxpayers they work for. And by linking government pay with private-sector pay, we will save as much as $47 billion a year.”

So from where are Romney and other GOP candidates drawing their ideas on this issue? Much of it stems from a 2010 Heritage Foundation study by James Sherk, a fiscal policy analyst who argues that the total compensation of federal employees — salary, plus health and retirement benefits — is between 30 and 40 percent higher than identical positions in the private sector.

What’s key in Sherk’s nuanced analysis is that he confronts several factors often cited by federal labor unions and supportive Democratic lawmakers when defending the pay and benefits of federal workers. For instance, the report notes that the federal workforce is older, thus more experienced, and, on average, better educated than the broader private sector. In many cases, the higher level of education is necessary in order to hold certain government positions, including scientists, doctors, lawyers and astronauts, to name a few, he says.

But a higher-experienced federal workforce shouldn’t justify the beter pay, Sherk writes. Much of that higher pay comes from the government’s generous benefits systems — which includes paid vacations and leave, a good health-care and retirement package, and, at some agencies, reimbursement for student loans.

Instead of enacting across-the-board pay cuts to pare down federal spending, Sherk proposes reestablishing a pay-for-performance system across the government.

Across the board pay cuts “would unfairly penalize the federal workers who earn market wages,” Sherk writes. But a new performance-based system and market-based pay scales based on labor demand, coupled with cuts to federal benefits “would not solve the country’s fiscal problems, but would be a solid — and fair — step toward a more responsible fiscal policy. The federal government should not overtax the general public to provide significantly above-average pay and benefits to those who work in the civil service.”

Romney used a similar line in his speech Friday: “The American people are increasingly working to support the government. It ought to be the other way around.”

Read Sherk’s report for yourself, and, as always, we eagerly welcome your thoughtful comments in the space below.

But keep in mind a few factors as Republicans continue discussing this issue on the campaign trail and on Capitol Hill.

First, recall that most of the federal workforce’s growth in the last decade has occurred at four departments — Defense, Justice, Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security — four departments tied to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the country’s intensified response to terrorism. Republicans overwhelmingly backed the wars and pushed for more spending on national security. Those four departments also employ thousands of experienced, highly-specialized employees — intelligence analysts, medical surgeons, lawyers — and law enforcement officers, many of whom could have worked elsewhere but in some cases may have been drawn to federal work because of the pay and benefits.

Also keep in mind two developments that emerged Friday around the same time that Romney spoke: First, new monthly employment statistics showed that local and state governments trimmed another 24,000 workers from payrolls in October. At the federal level, dozens of agencies are also offering thousands of workers buyouts, laying them off or using attrition to address tightening budgets.

And amid the criticism of federal salaries and benefits, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Friday that on average federal workers are now underpaid by 26.3 percent when compared with similar non-federal jobs. The “pay gap” between federal and private-sector workers increased by about 2 percentage points over the last year as federal salary rates were frozen.

The debate over the size and scope of the federal government is likely to continue through the primary season. We’ll continue highlighting the information and arguments as they emerge. And here’s hoping that a similar — ideally thoughtful and studied — debate on the issue eventually emerges during the general election as well.

Follow Ed O’Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost

Further reading:

Mitt Romney and reorganizing government

Federal employees make average 26 percent less than private workers, Labor agency reports

For more, visit PostPolitics and The Fed Page.