Federal pay freeze? Here's the flip side.

Obama's proposal for a pay freeze for federal employees meets with approval of most Americans. But not too long ago, the problem was lagging pay.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Upward of two-thirds of US voters approve of President Obama’s recent proposal for a pay freeze for federal employees for two years, polls show.

Are federal bureaucrats overpaid? Lots of nonfederal bureaucrats think so. Upward of two-thirds of US voters approve of President Obama’s recent proposal to freeze feds’ wages for two years, polls show.

We won’t take a position on that, other than to say we know many government workers who earn every dollar of their salary. But we will note this: Not too long ago, the big policy question regarding federal employees was not whether they made too much but whether they made too little.

You can look it up. Back in the late 1980s, some lawmakers grew concerned that Uncle Sam did not pay enough to attract and keep the skilled scientists, economists, doctors, and other white-collar professionals who make up a disproportionate share of the federal workforce. So they did what Congress does – they passed legislation meant to solve the problem.

As a result of that law (the Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act of 1990), pay for civilian federal employees is supposed to be adjusted every year to make sure their salaries remain competitive with comparable occupations in the private sector. The feds get a raise equal to that of a measure known as the Employment Cost Index, minus half a percentage point.

So, since 1991, federal wages have jumped about 65 percent. Comparable private-sector wages went up almost 100 percent over that time, according to a recent Congressional Research Service report. (Remember, government wages are supposed to be in the same ballpark as private sector pay, not equal.)

Yes, we see you waving your hands in the back – it’s true that the average federal worker makes a lot more than the average private-sector worker. But that’s like saying the average worker at Google makes more than the average worker at Target. Again, the key word is “comparable” – the federal workforce is full of doctors who treat Veterans Administration patients, scientists who are decoding the human genome, lawyers who are negotiating trade deals with wily Canadians, and so forth. Uncle Sam has nothing like the big mass of retail clerks and other low-wage jobs that lower average civilian pay.

Of course, federal workers do have great benefits and job security. Better than journalists get, anyway.

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