President Obama offered few concrete proposals for promoting fiscal responsibility during his “Twitter town hall” on Wednesday. One that he did mention was his drive to freeze federal employee salaries, though he offered the measure as an example of an effort to “make these adjustments that are necessary during these difficult fiscal times…in a way that preserves collective bargaining rights.”
“We froze federal pay for federal workers for two years,” Obama claimed. “Now that wasn’t real popular, as you might imagine, among federal workers,” the president added.
But even federal workers acknowledged at the time that salaries would not be frozen under the plan. A spokesperson for the American Federation of Government Employees union told the Federal Times that “the news that step increases will not be affected takes some of the sting out of the decision,” in the Times’s phrasing.
In fact, under the measure the president dubbed a “freeze,” the Federal Times estimated that 1.1 million federal employees will receive pay bumps totaling more than $2.5 billion in additional salary through the standard “step increases” federal pay system.
Regularly scheduled step increases for the 1.4 million General Schedule employees — who make up two-thirds of the civilian work force — will continue. The size of those increases ranges from 2.6 percent to 3.3 percent and by law kick in every one, two or three years, depending on an employee’s time in grade.
In other words, seniority will grant federal employees continued pay raises under Obama’s plan. That fact alone should give Americans pause: simply by virtue of their continued employment – i.e. with almost no regard for their performance – federal workers will continue to receive raises. As the Heritage Foundation has repeatedly pointed out, any real reform effort will have to address the skewed incentives of General Schedule pay system.
In any case, the president did not implement a salary “freeze” in any meaningful sense of the term; salaries for more than a million federal workers will likely rise.
Leave aside that reforming public worker pay “in a way that preserves collective bargaining rights” is a near-meaningless proposition when discussing federal workers, since most of those workers cannot currently bargain collectively for pay or benefits. That was, of course, the chief irony of President Obama criticizing government union reform efforts in Wisconsin: the president is in charge of roughly two million federal workers who have fewer collective bargaining “rights” than unionized Wisconsin workers will under the new law in that state.
The more central problem with President Obama’s claim that he froze federal workers’ pay for two years is that it’s not really true. To his credit, the president did slow the growth of federal pay increases, and in his speech seemed to have a grasp of the rationale for a pay freeze, but under the plan implemented late last year, federal salaries will be by no means static.