On federal worker pay, the region's congressional delegation speaks with one voice

November 30, 2010 - 09:53 AM
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President Obama's proposal to freeze federal worker pay for two years has united the region's congressional delegations in a big way.

Within hours of the president's announcement, several members of Congress from the Washington region put out statements acknowledging the need to rein in government spending but faulting Obama for not making federal pay part of a larger deficit-reduction plan. Their statements conveyed virtually identical reactions and near-identical phrasing.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.): "I believe any federal employee pay freeze should only be considered as part of an overall deficit reduction package."

Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.): "Unilaterally freezing pay for civil servants separate from a comprehensive, deficit reduction package unfairly asks federal employees to carry a burden that should be shared by all."

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) did his colleagues one better, sneaking two references to the need for "comprehensive" deficit reform into the same sentence, saying "I am hopeful that the administration will propose a comprehensive and serious program for deficit reduction that recognizes the need for a comprehensive approach."

Even Roscoe Bartlett (Md.), a budget hawk, broke with fellow Republicans, saying, "By singling out federal civilian employees, the president is casting workers as scapegoats for the $1.3 trillion federal budget deficit. That's terribly unfair. A pay freeze for federal civilian employees is painful, but it won't come close to solving our budget problems."

Bartlett's comments conflict with the position of incoming Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who issued a statement praising the president's action. (The region's only other Republican, Frank Wolf (Va.), did not respond to a request for comment and his website makes no mention of the issue.)

The president is calling for a two-year freeze of the salaries of some two million federal workers, saying in brief remarks Monday that "Small businesses and families are tightening their belts. The government should, too." The administration said the plan was designed to save more than $5 billion over the first two years.

The proposal, which must be approved by Congress, would not apply to the military, but it would affect all others in the Executive Branch payroll. It would not affect members of Congress or their staffs, defense contractors, postal workers or federal court judges and workers.

The region's congressional delegation has long been sensitive to the area's large federal workforce, and it's no surprise this proposal would unite local lawmakers. While they were unified in their opposition to the salary freeze, all took pains to signal they understand the public's anxiety about federal spending.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), who narrowly won re-election this month, noted in the first line of his press release that "Democrats and Republicans agree that long-term deficit reduction must be a top priority."

At the same time, however, there is a palpable fear among lawmakers who represent federal workers and their families that the nation's anger at the federal government may be fueling antagonism toward people who work for Uncle Sam.

As the AP reported: "Federal workers are an easy target. Polls show rising public anger toward the federal government at a time of continuing high unemployment and Wall Street and auto bailouts. Federal workers have been less directly affected by the recession than other sectors, with fewer layoffs and continued annual pay increases. Republican and fiscal conservative critics have argued that federal employees are better paid than private-sector counterparts, although public workers' unions dispute this."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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