Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty (R). (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty raised the issue Monday, saying federal employees are paid too generously compared to private sector workers.

During his official campaign kickoff speech in Iowa, Pawlenty said he would visit Washington this week “to remind the federal bureaucracy that government exists to serve its citizens, not its employees. The truth is, people getting paid by the taxpayers shouldn’t get a better deal than the taxpayers themselves.”

“That means freezing federal salaries, transitioning federal employee benefits, and downsizing the federal workforce as it retires,” Pawlenty said. “It means paying public employees for results, not just seniority - from the Capitol to the classroom, and everywhere in between.”

With those comments, the former governor signaled support for proposals backed by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to extend the federal worker pay freeze to 2015, beyond President Obama’s current two-year freeze, and to reduce the size of the federal workforce in the coming years by replacing every three employees who leave the federal governemnt with one new hire.

Pawlenty also appeared to endorse ideas advanced by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who wants a performance-based pay structure for federal workers.

The former governor, who sparred with Minnesota state worker unions over his eight years in office, earned the ire of public sector unions nationwide after claiming in a December Wall Street Journal op-ed that federal employees earn twice the average of private sector workers.

Citing statistics used often by GOP lawmakers and conservative think tanks, Pawlenty said federal workers earn an average of $123,049 when average salaries and benefits packages are combined.

Obama administration officials and union leaders prefer “apples-to-apples” comparisons of individual government jobs, noting for example that government-paid lawyers earn considerably less than privately-employed lawyers.

Regardless, Pawlenty said in his op-ed that “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.”

“How did this happen? Very quietly,” Pawlenty wrote. “The rise of government unions has been like a silent coup, an inside job engineered by self-interested politicians and fueled by campaign contributions.”

Public employee unions contributed about $91 milliion to midterm election campaign, Pawlenty said, backing canddiates “who vote to increase government pay and workers.”

His comments Monday and whatever he says Wednesday will likely trigger more ill will from federal worker unions and workers increasingly under pressure from Washington to pay more for federal pensions.

The federal pension system is emerging as a key area of agreement in negotiations between Vice President Biden and congressional leaders who are exploring ways to pay down the national debt. The talks are scheduled to continue on Tuesday.

Long-time federal employees, union leaders and other observers are warning however that any pension reform plan would make federal jobs less attractive and compel eligible workers to retire earlier than planned.

Turning the issue of their pay and benefits into a recurring theme on the presidential campaign trail might not help either.

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