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Obama’s Federal Pay Freeze Unpopular Among Progressives

Brian Beutler notes that President Obama’s plan to free federal employee pay is getting praised by Republicans but is wildly unpopular among progressive activists (aka “everybody”).

Michael Linden, a budget expert at the liberal Center for American Progress, said the plan is small potatoes that risks driving away valuable civil servants with little budgetary upside. “Bluntly doing it this way, we risk cutting off our nose to spite our face,” Linden said in a phone interview. “We risk not hiring good people, we risk not giving a raise to people who deserve a raise, and we miss not cutting the pay of those who deserve a pay cut.”

[...]

“The vast majority of federal employees are middle-class workers. That’s who we’re asking to take a hit,” Linden explained. “Maybe we have to ask them to take a hit [but] certainly we shouldn’t ask them to take the hit before the wealthiest two percent. Maybe down the line we’ll ask middle class to take the hit. But I’d really prefer not asking them to take the hit at the start.”

Larry Mishel, director of the liberal Economic Policy Institute, was equally blunt. In a statement Mishel warned,”In the context of the deficit, Obama will get chump change from freezing federal pay, and will only enlarge the degree to which federal pay lags that of the private sector (a gap of 22%, according to the federal pay agent’s report).”

This confirms my sense that this was a brilliant political move by Obama.  Indeed, it’s a page right out of Bill Clinton’s playbook:  Take a wildly popular Republican policy plank that you’ll have to give up in negotiations anyway, boldly announce it as your own, and get credit not only for the popular policy but for working with the opposition party.

Linden and Mishel make three arguments against the proposal, only one of which has any merit and none of which has any resonance.

“We risk not hiring good people, we risk not giving a raise to people who deserve a raise, and we miss not cutting the pay of those who deserve a pay cut.”

This is actually right insofar as it goes.  This is a signature Alan Simpson budget cut:  Conceding that you can’t get rational cuts, you just do it across-the-board.  It’s far from ideal but the only way to force savings.

So long as we maintain the 15-level civil service system — and attempts to supplant it in the Defense Department have crashed and burned — there’s not much that can be done.  Ideally, we’d constantly re-evaluate the value of each position and pay them accordingly.  But the reality is that people get tenured into slots, can’t be downgraded into lower paying ones, and bureaucratic fairness means you can’t pay them as, say, GS-13s and then slot others doing the exact same job as, say, GS-10s.

Further, there’s real concern about pay at the top levels.  Certain professionals, notably attorneys, physicians, and the like, are grossly underpaid compared to their civilian counterparts.   Successive Chief Justices have complained bitterly that it’s difficult to get people to take lower level federal judgeships that pay less than the best and brightest graduates make right out of law school.

“Maybe we have to ask them to take a hit [but] certainly we shouldn’t ask them to take the hit before the wealthiest two percent.”

This is doubly unpersuasive.

First, no one is “taking a hit” here.  We’ve got nearly 10 percent unemployment and something like 20 percent underemployment.  We’re guaranteeing federal workers their current pay levels for two years.  And there’s no inflation to speak of.  So, it’s really hard to feel sorry for the “hit” we’re asking them to take by not getting pay increases.

Second, the wealthiest two percent are paying a grossly disproportionate share of income taxes as it is. The question is whether they should be asked to pay more.   There are good arguments as to why they should, especially given ongoing wars and skyrocketing deficits.  But spending cuts — or, in this case, mere freezes — and tax increases are two different issues.  In one instance, we’re asking people to contribute more of the money they earn to the public weal.  In another, people are asking for a greater share of said weal.

“[This] will only enlarge the degree to which federal pay lags that of the private sector.”

I’m sure there are studies conducted by the federal employees union that claim they’re underpaid.   And there is an argument that they’re paid less than their counterparts in the uniformed services.  (A colonel makes substantially more than a GS-15, for example, even though they hold equivalent “rank.”)

But the fact of the matter is that federal employees make a substantially higher median salary than their private sector counterparts.  While that’s partly explainable by education and training levels, it’s also attributable to unionization, bureaucratic inertia, and the fact that government workers don’t compete with overseas labor and deal with other factors that have driven down wages in the private sector.

There may be arguments in favor of raising private pay rather than capping public pay. But it’s going to be very hard to generate sympathy from those in the private sector making less than their employees with arguments about a pay gap.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. john personna says:

    Zero Hedge had a funny headline, something like “Obama freezes Federal Wages at All Time High.”
     
    “Second, the wealthiest two percent are paying a grossly disproportionate share of income taxes as it is.”
     
    How are you doing your math on that?
     
    http://www.moneychimp.com/features/tax_brackets.htm
     

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  2. Andyman says:

    “Further, there’s real concern about pay at the top levels.  Certain professionals, notably attorneys, physicians, and the like, are grossly underpaid compared to their civilian counterparts.   Successive Chief Justices have complained bitterly that it’s difficult to get people to take lower level federal judgeships that pay less than the best and brightest graduates make right out of law school.”
     
    I’m glad you threw that in there, James.  I’m an aerospace engineer at DoD and I can’t figure out who all these overpaid, absentee gov’t employees are because I certainly don’t deal with many.  I know all my private-sector college friends are doing better than me (or at least were when we started) in some cases with less education.    It’s always been the case for professionals that you trade salary for job security and the psychic rewards of enjoying what you do and the participating in the altruism of public service.   

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  3. john personna says:

    Andyman, are you making the appropriate calculation for retirement compensation?
     
    I don’t know DoD engineers, but I do know teachers.  In the old days they made less, but had killer retirement (and medical extending into retirement).  Now they make about the same as the private sector, and still have killer retirement.  I know a nice lady who retired a little bit early … and at 90% salary.

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  4. Tano says:

    “Maybe we have to ask them to take a hit [but] certainly we shouldn’t ask them to take the hit before the wealthiest two percent.”
    This is doubly unpersuasive.”
     

    I find that to be rather persuasive, in fact.
    In purely political terms, what Obama is basically doing is negotiating with himself. If he will have to do something like this eventually he could 1) “boldly claim it as your own’ by doing it up front (as you praise him for doing), or 2) agree to it during negotiations in exchange for some concession from the other side. His failure to do that is what has some progressives upset.
     

    “First, no one is “taking a hit” here. ”

     
    Of course they are. Because of low inflation, it may not be a big hit, And because of high unemployment, you may think it a perfectly justified hit. And you may be totally unsympathetic in any case. But they are still going to be making less money than they otherwise would, so it is certainly a hit.
     

    “..the wealthiest two percent are paying a grossly disproportionate share of income taxes as it is.’
     

    Because they make a grossly disproportionate share of income.
     

    The question is whether they should be asked to pay more.   There are good arguments as to why they should, especially given ongoing wars and skyrocketing deficits.

     
    Yes indeed.
     

    But spending cuts — or, in this case, mere freezes — and tax increases are two different issues.  In one instance, we’re asking people to contribute more of the money they earn to the public weal.  In another, people are asking for a greater share of said weal.

     
    Whatever. In either case, you are trying to make some progress toward balancing the budget by adjusting the income level of some group of people – by either restoring the tax levels on the upper class to the level that was in place during our longest period of sustained economic growth, or by denying pay increases to a segment of the middle class. The latter will clearly be more problematical to the people involved, as well as reducing demand in the economy.

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  5. Andyman says:

    @john,
     
    Older employees in CSRS have a pretty generous defined annuity that can reach 90% or so of their salary if they work a long time (~40 yrs).  The new generation is under FERS; a much smaller defined annuity, like 40% or so if you work a full career, plus social security and your TSP (401(k)).  I was told when I was hired on that people who don’t contribute generously to their TSP accounts end up quite a bit worse off than they would have under CSRS.

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  6. john personna says:

    I guess Tano is our man on the left.  I was actually surprised by the claim that “progressives” were against the cap.  It is such a small thing.  Why get motivated about it at all.  I guess it comes down to whether you think government is right-sized, or needs to be bigger.  If it ain’t big enough, then sure, you need to tax those rich and keep building.
     
    But Tano, I don’t think that will really poll well across the middle, through the moderates, let alone to the right.

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  7. john personna says:

    Thanks Andyman.  I suspect that would add up.  If you wanted, for your own amusement, you could look up a private annuity paid with annual contributions, to get an idea of the cash-benefit you are receiving.

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  8. john personna says:

    (So the pig in the python are the older engineers retiring at high salary with good benefits?)

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  9. Andyman says:

    @john,
     
    “I guess it comes down to whether you think government is right-sized, or needs to be bigger.  If it ain’t big enough, then sure, you need to tax those rich and keep building.”
    I’m not sure I understand this.  We’re running a deficit right now, so someone who thinks the government is currently right-sized would also have to support some tax increases if they’re looking for fiscal balance.  People who want the rich to pay more taxes don’t necessarily want a *larger* government, just not an eviscerated one.

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  10. john personna says:

    “I’m not sure I understand this.  We’re running a deficit right now, so someone who thinks the government is currently right-sized would also have to support some tax increases if they’re looking for fiscal balance.”
     
    Right, that’s what I hear in the upstream quote:
     
    “Maybe we have to ask them to take a hit [but] certainly we shouldn’t ask them to take the hit before the wealthiest two percent.”
     
    I hear “tax the rich” rather than “downsize.”
     

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  11. john personna says:

    Or to be fair “tax the rich before we downsize.”

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  12. Andyman says:

    I’m speaking as someone who certainly thinks there’s room to cut in the government but can see where the quotee is coming from.
     
    I think it stems from a distrust that other shoes will ever drop, especially with certain constituencies in Congress apparently working at cross-purposes to actually governing.  In other words I’d like some mechanism to ensure that you’ll be taking your cyanide pill before I take mine.
     
    One thing Simpson was right about: the more painful the cuts are, the more politically important it is that they be across the board and not enacted piecemeal.  We all have to jump at the same time.

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  13. john personna says:

    There is a metaphor I like.  I think it comes from the railroads, and the idea of stopping a train.  It is “pull alll available levers.”
     
    That’s where I think we’re at.

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  14. john personna says:

    (as opposed to waiting for someone to pull their lever first.)

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  15. Tano says:

    I guess Tano is our man on the left.  I was actually surprised by the claim that “progressives” were against the cap

     
    Did I say that? I said that some progressives were upset because Obama put this out himself, rather than conceding it in exchange for other concessions from the political opposition.

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  16. anjin-san says:

    Can’t say that I have a problem with this.  As for somehow losing good/needed workers, don’t really see that happening in this economy. Now if we can deal with out of control salaries/benefits at the city and county level, we will be getting somewhere.

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  17. anjin-san says:

    Fox poll on federal pay freeze:
     

    Is a pay freeze for federal workers fair?

    No — We need to bring down the deficit, but it shouldn’t be done on the backs of government workers. Yes — I’m all in favor of anything that can make a dent in our bloated deficit. Maybe — I’m all for cutting the deficit, but shouldn’t we first take a look at program cuts before we start chopping paychecks

    So let’s see. The maybe is phrased as a negative. And how exactly is not giving someone a raise “chopping” their paycheck?

    It will be interesting to watch how quickly the right backs off any deficit control measures put forth by Obama.

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  18. 11B40 says:

    Greetings:
     
    My understanding is that the President is wanting to freeze congressional pay raises.  The federal compensation system also encompasses grade and step pay increase and various types of bonus awards, if I’m not mistaken.  These processes may require more managerial creativity and paperwork, but they will be available and they will be used.

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  19. [...] the proposal is garnering mostly negative reaction on the left, it has gotten at least some positive comments from Congressional Republicans: Republicans framed [...]

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  20. bandit says:

    <b>I’m an aerospace engineer at DoD and I can’t figure out who all these overpaid, absentee gov’t employees are because I certainly don’t deal with many. </b>
    You said a mouthful there. I work in the DPS and I don’t deal with ANY. I’ve worked as a subcontractor in a couple of states on huge projects (RomneyCare web portal) and the incompetence and inefficiency is staggering. I’m related to a bunch of Federal workers and many of them would be lucky to be working at Starbucks except that my wife’s uncle was a 16 term US rep.
    I was up at the beach this summer and I saw my friend who is a postal worker – there was some fireworks show at night and he was all like stay – I tell him I can’t because I have to work in the AM and he tells me without batting an eye – “Bang in sick”
     
     

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  21. John425 says:

    I know the subject is federal pay, but the phrasing of the header regarding “progressives” just stirred my blood.
    I strongly emphasize that one must never refer to leftists as ‘liberals’.  In reality, they are illiberal, intolerant, and rigid.  By allowing them to assign a positive word like ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’ to themselves, the right already concedes the battle before it has even begun.  Would you want to enter into a public debate with someone under the agreement that they get to call themselves the ‘smart/good person’ while you have to be known as the ‘dumb/evil person’? 
     Yet this is what the right readily agrees to, and they appear to be incapable of learning from their errors.  In 8 years, I have seen just two articles by a Republican describing why it is unwise to refer to totalitarian leftists as ‘liberals’, while every other article posted daily continues with this foolishness. 
    But it goes further.  For years and years, the left has behaved with extreme hypocrisy on issues of race, ethics, and pro- vs anti-American stances.  The response that the right delivers is to point out this hypocrisy in a polite manner, expecting the left to acknowledge their error and not repeat it in the future.  Needless to say, the left has no problem with hypocrisy and projection, and has no intention of changing this.  Yet, the Republicans still fail to notice that pointing out such examples of hypocrisy has no effect on the debate. 
    The definition of insanity, or at least stupidity, is repeating the same action a number of times, and expecting a different result, but Republicans fail to see that the character of their “progressive” opponents is far too uncivilized for the toothless tactics that Republicans restrict themselves to.

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  22. Tano says:

    while you have to be known as the ‘dumb/evil person’?  Yet this is what the right readily agrees to…”

     
    Are you saying that “conservative’ = “dumb/evil”? Because that is the term that those on the right are known as when those on the left are called liberals.
     
    You seem like a totally deranged and hate-filled person John. What exactly is the nature of your problem?

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  23. James Joyner says:

    By allowing them to assign a positive word like ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’ to themselves, the right already concedes the battle before it has even begun.

    ‘Conservative’ has much higher self-identification numbers and has for decades.   I use “Progressive” to apply to a very small sub-section of the most ideological Democratic Left and “Liberal” to refer to mainstream left-of-center Democrats.    While some of the latter doubtless think this freeze is a bad idea, only the latter are up in arms about it as an ideological matter.

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  24. John425 says:

    Tano: Read the entire sentence. Are you ADHD or something? I repeat… leftists are not liberals. They are illiberal, intolerant and rigid.

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  25. Tano says:

    John
    I read the entire sentence. You claimed that leftys are setting up the conversation as one between smart/good people (themselves) “while you have to be known as the ‘dumb/evil person”.
    And they do this by calling themselves liberals. What do they call you? They call you conservative. And so, by your logic, by calling you conservative – “you have to be known as the ‘dumb/evil person”.
     
    And I repeat my question to you. Why are you so deranged about “the left”. I don’t know about the evil part, bur for anyone to claim that people on the left are somehow inherently more prone to hypocrisy is just dumb beyond words. It displays a very immature attitude of “I’m great, they suck”. Are you, perhaps, thirteen years old or something?
    As for intolerant and rigid, well, these characteristics do emerge into the public arena on many issues, but they usually do so from the right – because they are simply the extreme positions of what are otherwise basic conservative attitudes, namely an emphasis on fundamentalist, traditional positions as opposed to innovation and diversity.

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  26. matt says:

    ‘Conservative’ has much higher self-identification numbers and has for decades.   I use “Progressive” to apply to a very small sub-section of the most ideological Democratic Left and “Liberal” to refer to mainstream left-of-center Democrats.    While some of the latter doubtless think this freeze is a bad idea, only the latter are up in arms about it as an ideological matter.
     

    What I always found funny was that the high school students in my small town would always claim they were conservative. The interesting part is they would then turn around and say they support gay rights/civil unions/marriage, choice to have an abortion, restrictions in gun rights, softer laws on drugs (especially pot) etc etc… It’s interesting that people who are politically in line with liberal ideology will claim they are conservative. I’ve seen the same thing here in Texas but I’m not exposed to nearly as many high school students anymore..

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  27. anjin-san says:

    “leftist” has been a dog whistle codeword for communist pretty much forever. Its not difficult to see what peanut heads like bithead are trying to accomplish by repeatedly directing it at people all the way up to mainstream Democrats. It’s sad, and it’s one more reason not to respect them.

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  28. john personna says:

    The Republicans have achieved a very strong positioning.  They have everyone believing (1) America is a center-right country (relative to its own left), and (2) that anything center and left is socialist.
     
    This despite the Republicans having fewer registered voters than the Democrats (and seemingly being overtaken by the independents).

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  29. John425 says:

    Tano: “…fundamentalist, traditional positions as opposed to innovation and diversity.”
    LMAO! Leftists (you, perhaps?) prefer that “innovation and diversity” be the function of a government agency.

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