Even the more jaded observers of Washington politics had to be disappointed with the performance of federal pay defenders during yesterday’s House Oversight Committee hearing.
As was written on Monday, defenders had to deal with a mountain of empirical evidence that federal workers are paid above-market compensation, and I was looking forward to a vigorous discussion of that evidence. Instead, defenders of the existing pay system avoided that discussion almost entirely.
John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management, was the worst offender in this regard, going so far as to fundamentally mischaracterize our research. When pressed by Chairman Dennis Ross (R–FL) on whether he agrees with reports by The Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute that federal workers are overcompensated by 30–40 percent, Berry responded:
Absolutely not. … Their comparisons are based on gross averages. … The federal workforce is now a very skilled, white-collar, high-sophisticated workforce. … So we need to compare the federal government with like-to-like.
In fact, the Heritage and AEI reports do control for a whole range of worker skills and characteristics. Far from an obscure methodological issue, using control variables to make apples-to-apples comparisons was the whole point of both reports, the point that separated them from non-scholarly analyses that use raw averages. Even a cursory glance at either report would tell the reader that worker characteristics were controlled. It is disappointing that Berry could be mistaken about such a fundamental aspect of our research.
During a break in the hearing, I told a staffer on the committee about Berry’s mistake, which led Representative Darrell Issa (R–CA) to say to Berry:
Earlier you commented that the AEI and Heritage reports did not include an adjustment or a recognition of education, experience, and so on. In fact I reviewed them, and they do. So would you look at them again and commit for the record to give us an answer on why you think there are flaws in their process.
Issa suggested two weeks to put together his answer, and Berry quickly agreed. So maybe the evidence-based discussion will happen after all. Maybe.