Obama federal pay freeze draws mild praise, strong criticism

In a move that will be seen in many quarters as typical for being ineffectively compromising, President Obama announced he was freezing federal pay for two years as part of a larger effort to attack the deficit. The pay freeze is a clear concession to newly powerful Republican lawmakers in the wake of the midterm elections and comes in advance of meetings scheduled with Congressional leaders at the White House Tuesday. Yet the move drew only faint praise from the right and it will find few friends on the left. It was also ridiculed as a serious deficit reduction strategy by the nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute.

“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 percent, according to the federal pay agent’s report),” wrote Lawrence Mishel, Economic Policy Institute president. “This is another example of the administration’s tendency to bargain with itself rather than Republicans, and in the process reinforces conservative myths, in this case the myth that federal workers are overpaid. Such a policy also ignores the fact that deficit reduction and loss of pay at a time when the unemployment rate remains above 9 percent will only weaken a too-weak recovery.”

As if to make Mishel’s point, Colorado Republican Rep. Mike Coffman, a leader in demanding pay cuts for federal employees, offered Obama only a backhanded compliment in a release that featured a one-line quote brimming with the same un-sourced allegations Mishel called “conservative myths.”

“No doubt, this does not go far enough,” said Coffman, “but his pay freeze is a positive first step by a President who has added over 100,000 new federal employees at wages and benefits much higher than are available in the private sector for doing similar work.”

Coffman’s office did not respond is sending a response to messages asking for the source of the Congressman’s figures.*

Coffman introduced H.R. 6134 this past September, which would make federal employees take two week furloughs next year and reduce salaries in Congress by 10 percent. Neither Obama’s nor Coffman’s proposals would affect military personnel.

In its annual survey comparing government salaries and private-sector salaries, the President’s Pay Agent– the Secretary of Labor, Director of the Office of Management and Budget and the Director of the Office of Personnel Management– reports that government pay lags by an average of 22 percent behind equivalent private-sector pay. In Denver, federal salaries lag behind private-sector salaries by 19 percent (see table 4 pdf).

The New York Times reports that the proposed pay freeze would end plans for a 1.4 percent raise in 2011 for 2.1 million federal employees. The freeze will save $2 billion this year and would save $28 billion over five years.

“That represents just a tiny dent in a $1.3 trillion annual deficit but it offers a symbolic gesture toward public anger over unemployment, the anemic economic recovery and rising national debt,” the Times reported.

* Note: The author sent an email inquiry to the general Coffman press email address not to Coffman Communications Director Nathaniel Sillin directly. Sillin has contacted the author to say he is happy to respond. The post will be updated when he does.

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