By Mike Lillis - 03/01/12 12:21 AM EST
Leading Democrats charged Republicans this week with "discrimination" against federal workers amid Congress's struggle to cut deficit spending.
The Democrats said a series of federal pay cuts – most recently as part of the payroll-tax package – pile the deficit-reduction burden on one group of Americans while the rest of the country gets a free pass. The lawmakers – all of whom represent districts laden with federal workers – are vowing to oppose any future legislation that includes cuts in federal compensation.
Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland said the fight over federal compensation is part of a much larger partisan war over the preservation of the middle-class. Cardin, who was a member of the payroll-tax conference committee, accused Republicans of wanting "to turn back the clock" on workers' rights.
"They want to take [us] back to the 19th century," Cardin said.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) suggested hundreds of NTEU members were "courageous" to visit the Capitol, which she characterized as "the scene of the crime against federal workers today."
"The Republicans have created a virtual piggybank containing your federal pay and your federal pensions – to be robbed at will," Norton charged. "We're here to say to Republicans, 'This piggybank is not yours.'"
As part of this month's bipartisan payroll-tax deal, GOP leaders insisted on a provision requiring federal employees hired after 2012 to contribute 3.1 percent of their annual salaries to their pensions — a 2.3-point jump over current levels. The provision is estimated to save roughly $15 billion over the next decade – money Congress tapped to offset an extension of emergency unemployment benefits through the end of the year.
An initial House-passed GOP bill would also have affected current federal workers, but push-back from Hoyer, Cardin and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), another member of the payroll tax conference panel, caused GOP negotiators to scale back the provision.
The pension cuts come on the heels of a two-year freeze in federal pay, estimated to save taxpayers roughly $60 billion over a decade.
Advocates for federal workers say they're being singled out unfairly.
"The time has come for shared sacrifice, and we have already made our contribution," NTEU President Colleen Kelley said Wednesday. "These cuts need to stop."
Cardin noted that President George W. Bush inherited a projected budget surplus in 2001 and turned it into a $1.2 trillion projected deficit eight years later – largely the result of unpaid wars and unfunded tax cuts.
"It was not the federal workers who caused this deficit," Cardin said.
"Every time we need to find money to solve our problems, they keep coming back to you," echoed Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.). "It's almost like going out to dinner with a group of friends and you're always being asked to pick up the check."
Fueling the debate, a January study from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) found that federal employees, on average, are paid roughly 2 percent more than comparable private-sector workers – a figure that jumps to 16 percent when health and other benefits are considered.
Republicans pounced, using the report to support their federal compensation cuts.
"While millions of Americans continue to struggle with stagnant wages and high unemployment, government bureaucrats in Washington continue to enjoy significant advantages over those whose tax dollars finance their compensation," Rep. Paul Ryan, (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Budget Committee, said in response to the CBO report.
The Democrats on Wednesday defended the pay discrepancy. The problem is not that federal workers are overcompensated, they said, but that too many private-sector employees are denied fair wages and benefits.
"We're trying to give them a living wage – how awful that is," Hoyer quipped.
"Let's correct what they're doing in the private sector," Cardin added, "[not] race to the bottom."
Virginia Democratic Reps. Jim Moran and Gerald Connolly also addressed the union crowd Wednesday.