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FEULNER: A job too good to be true

Public-employee compensation is out of line with today’s tough times

- The Washington Times - Monday, February 6, 2012

Imagine a job where you earn an above-average salary, enjoy plenty of paid leave, have enviable health benefits and get to retire at age 56 with a generous pension. Sound good?

For far too many Americans, the "imagine a job" part is taxing enough. Add the other features, and it sounds like a fantasy.

But it isn't. There's a large group of workers for whom the description above is real: federal workers. And as a new report from the Congressional Budget Office shows, they're making significantly more than their private-sector counterparts.

The CBO examined workers with otherwise similar characteristics and found that "for workers at all education levels, the cost of total compensation averaged about $52 per hour worked for federal employees, compared with about $45 per hour worked for employees in the private sector." That's a tidy little raise, especially in a struggling economy.

The real key is benefits. If you look at straight salary, the CBO says federal workers do only slightly better than their private-sector counterparts. But federal workers enjoy gold-plated benefits worth 48 percent more than what they would receive outside of government. They also get nearly automatic seniority-based pay raises.

Sounds like the phrase "good enough for government work" doesn't apply to compensation. Then it's more like "never good enough," apparently.

Even better (or worse, if you're taxpayers footing the bill) federal workers enjoy a remarkable level of job security. "Since the recession began, federal employment [not including the Postal Service] has risen by 240,000, or 12 percent," writes Heritage Foundation senior policy analyst James Sherk. "Federal employees are almost never fired for poor performance." Many Americans in the private sector only wish they could say the same.

That's not to say that all federal employees make more than their private-sector counterparts. In fact, some of the most skilled federal workers actually may be underpaid. Overall, though, there's no denying the obvious: Compensation for government workers is too high - and it's completely unmoored from any kind of market-based reality.

It's not just pay at the federal level that's at issue. The issue has become heated where state employees are concerned as well. Legislatures and governors in capitals around the country are faced with growing deficits and a rising tide of red ink. So over the past few years, they've attempted to curb the growth of government pay.

Of course, this means opposing unions that fight tooth and nail to keep their inflated salaries moving in only one direction: up. This has proved to be quite a headache for governors such as Wisconsin's Scott Walker. He's been treated like Public Enemy No. 1 for trying to take even modest steps to address the pay issue and bring the state's books into balance.

There has been a much weaker effort at the federal level. Lawmakers did agree to suspend cost-of-living pay increases (but not raises for merit or promotions) for civilian workers in 2011 and this year. A proposal to extend this freeze through 2013, sponsored by Rep. Sean P. Duffy, Wisconsin Republican, recently passed the House of Representatives.

"While private-sector workers face the squeeze and millions of families continue searching for work, the idea of asking that their hard-earned dollars go to fund a pay raise for government employees is just not right," Mr. Duffy said.

He's right. Yet the White House opposes even this small effort to restore a tiny bit of balance to a pay system that's obviously out of whack. Why?

It's high time Congress ignored the tin-eared cries of those who would defend this indefensible status quo and brought federal compensation into line with market rates. That's what the average American has to face. Why not federal workers?

Ed Feulner is president of the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).

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