EDITORIAL: Federal bonus bonanza

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The only thing that seems to be growing during the current economic downturn is the government, and that’s cause for alarm. While families and businesses struggle to make ends meet, the ranks of federal workers swell - as does their compensation. It’s time for the feds to start making the same financial sacrifices as the rest of us.

Consider how much money a bureaucrat can make for successfully sitting at his desk for a year. In January, all federal workers, regardless of competence or expertise, saw a 2.4 percent boost in their paychecks. That came on top of a 4.8 percent increase the previous year and a 4.5 percent rise before that. Compare this boon to private-sector wages, which increased, on average, a mere 1.4 percent last year and 2.6 percent a year earlier. Aside from the cost-of-living adjustment, government schedule employees also receive “step increases,” which, for the most part, are just as automatic.

These continual increases have so engorged the federal trough that, according to a USA Today analysis published Monday, government salaries exceed the pay for equivalent work in the private sector. Combined with generous benefit packages, ironclad job security and low productivity expectations, a federal gig has never looked better - especially with real unemployment hovering at 16.8 percent.

Nonetheless, Uncle Sam is busy dishing out “recruitment, relocation and retention incentives” to bring workers onto the federal gravy train or encourage them to stay with it. This largesse, which does not include “merit pay” and other variations on the bonus theme, cost taxpayers $285 million in 2008.

Take, for example, the Committee for Purchase From People Who Are Blind or Severely Disabled, a federal agency created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938. Its deputy executive director received a payment of $30,803 to entice him not to retire after 37 years in government. The Department of the Army paid a “human resources management specialist” $1,602 after the employee threatened to transfer to a Navy office in Bethesda.

Perhaps this paperwork specialist was irreplaceable, but it is beyond doubt that others received benefits in jobs that just about anyone could do. The Commerce Department gave incentives to six fishermen. Other agencies gave incentives to 199 secretaries. Forty-three food-service workers took a total of $111,095 in incentives. Twenty-four janitors took an average of $1,401 each. Eighty-one incentives went to public relations professionals.

According to an Office of Personnel Management report that supplied the latest available data on the subject, “Most agencies reported no barriers to using these incentives.” Of course, why would there be a barrier to spending other people’s money?

This carefree attitude has sent federal incentive payments skyrocketing while the economy tanked. The number of people offered a signing bonus to become a bureaucrat, for example, increased 188 percent between 2006 and 2008. The size of the checks likewise jumped 161 percent.

While $285 million is a comparably small amount given the magnitude of the federal leviathan, left in the hands of the private sector, these funds would be better used as capital to create actual, productive jobs. Incentives can be important, but federal workers already are overpaid, and there’s little chance they’ll leave for a private sector hemorrhaging jobs.

The left shrieks about the unfairness of the large bonuses handed out to Wall Street executives even though shareholders alone have the right to decide what compensation is appropriate and necessary. As effective shareholders in the federal enterprise, we think the federal incentive structure must come to an end.

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