GOP targets salaries, 'offensive' bonuses of federal workers

Cost-cutting House Republicans on Wednesday made it clear that they are eyeing the salaries of federal workers.

And they don’t like what they see.

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During a House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee hearing, panel Chairman Dennis Ross (R-Fla.) noted that “federal employees on average earned $101,628 in total compensation in 2010, nearly four times more than the average private-sector worker.”

He argued President Obama’s two-year pay freeze for federal workers, enacted in December, “wasn’t really a freeze” because it did not include all increases. He also decried the fact that Obama’s 2012 budget calls for hiring 15,000 more federal workers.

Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry shot back that studies showing federal workers earn more than private-sector workers are misleading, and said federal workers should not be denigrated.

The contentious hearing comes as Republican governors in various states, most notably Wisconsin, are seeking to make major cuts in government salaries and benefits.

Ross said there is less pressure on federal workers than state workers in places like Wisconsin because the federal government isn’t forced by law to balance its budget, like states are.

Recent polls show Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) slipping in the polls amid the budget stalemate. But House Republicans say the issue of federal workers' salaries is a winning issue for them because of the nation’s anti-Washington mood and rejection of legislation that expands the reach of government.

Last summer, then-Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) railed against the salaries of federal workers, calling for major reforms.

After the 2010 election, Obama announced the two-year freeze for federal workers, infuriating union officials and leading GOP officials to crow that the president endorsed their idea.

Democrats have mocked the House Speaker for what they claim is his cavalier attitude toward federal workers losing their jobs. Boehner last month responded “so be it” when asked about the possibility of government employees becoming unemployed as a result of the GOP’s budget cuts. He later clarified his remark.

Both sides on Wednesday accused each other of using misleading information.

By government estimates, Berry said, federal workers make about 20 percent less than their private-sector counterparts in a straight job-to-job comparison and when additional factors, including job danger, are factored in.

Berry noted that attorneys start at a salary of $90,000, compared to $145,000 for first-year law firm associates, while federal cooks tend to make more because most work in prisons under “dangerous” conditions.

He said directly comparing federal to private-worker pay generally is not fair, because private-sector salary averages are driven down by the inclusion of lower-skilled workers’ wages, like retail clerks and waiters — positions absent in the federal workforce.

“We must reject misleading comparisons that perpetuate the myth that federal employees are overcompensated,” he said.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) criticized Berry over the fact that 63 percent of workers last year got some kind of performance award.

Berry said these payments for good work averaged less than $1,000.

“These are not the Wall Street bonuses we have heard about,” he said.

Chaffetz shouted back that it is “offensive to many people” that the government would hand out so many bonuses during a rough economy.

Berry acknowledged that the six-decade-old federal pay system is not perfect and is indeed worthy of scrutiny — as long as federal workers are not being unfairly portrayed.

Republicans have been calling for a five-year pay freeze for federal workers, combined with a hiring freeze.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the full Oversight and Government Reform Committee, asked Berry if he would work with Congress to make the Obama pay freeze a “real” pay freeze that also includes step increases within pay grades.

Berry said he would not support that effort because canceling step increases would cause too many federal workers to leave their government jobs for the private sector.

The Obama pay freeze applies to cost-of-living adjustments but does not apply to automatic step increases.

Ross said after the hearing that the GOP would look to correct the overpay situation in two ways: first by freezing step increases within pay grades for federal workers, and then by overhauling the entire pay system.

The first step could come within weeks, but Ross would not say how Republicans would try to move that bill, which would save $1 billion over a fiscal year. The second step, Ross said, would likely enjoy broader bipartisan support, and would involve giving managers more flexibility to award salary increases and to fire bad employees, as well as changing how the government compares federal wages to the private sector.


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