House Republicans took aim Wednesday at President Obama's proposed federal pay freeze, saying that his promise is bogus because the freeze still allows for automatic wage increases that also should be put on ice.
Rep. Darrell Issa, California Republican and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, drove home the point during a subcommittee hearing where he grilled Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry.
"People are getting pay increases automatically this year," said Mr. Issa, noting that the cost of the raises will total $500 million through the end of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, and cost about $1 billion annually. "There is no pay freeze because of the [pay] step increases" for some federal employees.
Mr. Obama announced a pay freeze last year and reminded lawmakers in his State of the Union Address that "we've frozen the salaries of hardworking federal employees for the next two years."
But Mr. Issa said the pledge falls flat now that it's clear some of the workforce will still receive automatic wage increases.
The comments came during an Oversight Committee hearing where Republicans posed the question of whether federal employees are underpaid, while rolling out statistics that suggested federal employees are better compensated then their private sector counterparts.
Democrats, meanwhile, argued that federal employees are not overpaid because they are generally more skilled, and that it is misleading to compare the public and private sector workforces.
In his testimony, Mr. Berry also rejected the idea, saying that "even if the system is not perfect, we must reject misleading uses of data that perpetuate the myth that federal employees are, as a whole, overcompensated."
When pressed by Mr. Issa as to whether the administration would be willing to delay the automatic raises, Mr. Berry said the wage increases help retain employees.
The hearing came as Republicans are pushing states to reduce the cost of public pension plans that were promised to workers and get rid of collective bargaining rights for state workers, while also pushing $61 billion in spending cuts this fiscal year.
That led some Democrats to suggest that Republicans were trying to seize the high ground in a long-standing battle between the parties over how best to recruit, retain and reward federal employees for their work.
Gerald E. Connolly, Virginia Democrat, said the GOP goal was to undermine public-employee unions, public service and federal workers because "they don't believe in it."
"That's what this is all about, but frankly at times it resembles a high school farce," he said, noting signs the GOP hung from the walls that highlighted the 8 million jobs lost in the private sector and 157,000 jobs added in the public sector from 2008 to 2010. "They don't want answers, they just want to make a point.
After the hearing, Rep. Dennis Ross, Florida Republican who chaired the subcommittee hearings, predicted that the House will push to stop the automatic raises this year. He also said the House could push to reduce the cost of the federal workforce through systematic changes aimed at tweaking the way retirement benefits are calculated and reforming the general-schedule pay system so people received raises based on performance, not time served.
"[The payment system] has a broad-brushed approach, and I don't think it adequately compensates those who perform very, very, well," Mr. Ross said. "It keeps them at a level of somebody that is not performing well."
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