Hold the line on public pay

The zeal of many US congressmen and senators to vote themselves a whopping 17 percent pay increase this past week was not only unseemly, but bad government. It was in bad taste because it comes at a time when most families are desperately struggling to offset continuing inflation and high interest rates with their own far more meager salaries -- and, usually, far more modest pay increases (when such increases are forthcoming at all.) And it comes when the voters, in electing a new Republican president and Republican-controlled Senate, have clearly indicated that they want fiscal restraint and sound management in government first and foremost.

The pay hike was agreed to in a House-Senate conference late last week as part of a new omnibus appropriations bill. The proposal was then adopted by the House 172 to 71, with members declining a recorded roll call vote. The Senate, to its credit, separated out the pay measure from the rest of the bill and, by a 62 to 8 vote, forced further negotiations with the House.

Why, beyond the obvious matter of the size of the increase, should the public be outraged by this type of slapdash and secretive law-making? The reason is that given pension and other retirement benefits, with their built-in escalator clauses to offset inflation, what happens to federal salary levels has both immediate and long-term consequences for the entire US economy -- just as the unrestrained growth of public pay in Great Britain has undermined Margaret Thatcher's ability to bring order to the British economy. In the US case, granting a 17 percent pay hike would mean substantially higher current and delayed salary costs for the federal government.

More important, it would set an outrageous precedent for the entire public sector itself.

How can the US government justifiably ask its own workers to exercise restraint in their wage demands when Congress itself seeks to enact an increase that is just shy of a one-fifth hike in salary? And if civil servants -- already better paid than many private sector workers -- win big increases, who can restrain private wage settlements? During 1981 alone contract wage agreements involving more than 2.5 million workers will be coming up for resolution.

Which brings us around to the whole matter of government salary and pension benefits themselves. There has been a tremendous explosion these past few decades in the number of persons engaged in government service. While most attention has focused on the federal government, with its high wage levels, the largest increase in employment has actually come at the state and local level.

For jobs ranging from law enforcement to sanitation, salaries and pension benefits have sometimes tended to be very generous. When one adds to that equation the growing clout of public employees unions, it is not surprising that many localities find themselves strapped for revenue to pay future (and in some cases current) retirement benefits, which are becoming intolerable burdens for hard-pressed taxpayers. The recent near-shutdown of the rapid transit system in Boston, where runaway salaries and other costs have plunged a community into crisis, and where politicians have been unwilling to make needed management changes, is just one local example of the abuse of public pay programs.

We are not questioning the right of civil servants to adequate pay and retirement benefits that are roughly equal to benefits offered by private industry for similar work. But what should be of deep concern to all Americans is the fact that such benefits are rising to a level that threatens the funding of many present and future social programs. Pentagon retirement benefits are rising so rapidly as to divert funds from either weapons buying, research and development, or current personnel needs.

Or take Congress itself. A lawmaker with 32 years experience can now retire with a pension of over $47,000. With only 18 years of experience a lawmaker can retire with over $26,000. There are numerous fringe benefits, including medical insurance, life insurance, and even certain free mailing privileges. On top of this, of course, is the likelihood of an important and equally remunerative job in private industry or private law practice after leaving the legislature.

A new administration and Congress will shortly be in place in Washington. We urge them immediately to take firm steps to get spiraling federal pension and pay costs under greater control. The costs, for now and for the future, are too great.

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