Obama’s Pay Freeze is Just the Start of Government Belt-Tightening

Yesterday morning, President Obama made his first move towards addressing our deficit by calling for a two-year freeze on federal worker salaries. Some have called the move “symbolic,” a showing that Washington is willing to make sacrifices at a time when many Americans are being forced to do the same.

As President Obama said,

Small businesses and families are tightening their belts.  Their government should, too.  And that’s why . . . today I’m proposing a two-year pay freeze for all civilian federal workers.  This would save $2 billion over the rest of this fiscal year and $28 billion in cumulative savings over the next five years.

Rather than symbolic, I view the freeze as necessary. A symbol implies that the action has no inherent value other than as a token representation of President Obama’s belief that the government is willing to mirror the sacrifice of the private sector. President Obama’s deficit commission, which first recommended the freeze, didn’t find it merely symbolic. Quite the contrary the commission argued that,

“During the Great Recession, most private sector employees have seen their wages frozen, and some have even watched wages decline. In contrast, federal workers have seen their wages increase due to automatic formulas in law that provide them with step-in-grade and cost-of-living adjustments.”

More than a symbol, these cuts were necessary reductions to realign government salaries with the market for their services. And even then it is only a first step. According to recent analyses by USA Today, total compensation for federal government workers has risen 37 percent over the rate of inflation during the past decade while private worker compensation has risen 8.8 percent in the same timeframe.

In fact President Obama’s proposed cuts don’t even live up to the three year freeze that was proposed by the President’s own deficit commission. More importantly, it fails to follow the commission’s recommendation for a partial hiring freeze that would cut the size of the federal workforce by 10 percent. The growth in the size of the federal government, just as much as the size of their paychecks, is a problem that the President should have addressed. According to research done by the Wall Street Journal, the federal workforce has grown by 17 percent since 2007 to its largest level since 1992 when the government shrunk following the end of the Cold War.

Fortunately, yesterday was merely the beginning of a much longer conversation over the disastrous state of our nation’s finances. President Obama said himself that Going forward, we’re going to have to make some additional very tough decisions that this town has put off for a very long time.  And that’s what this upcoming week is really about.  My hope is that, starting today, we can begin a bipartisan conversation about our future, because we face challenges that will require [cooperation].”

He’s absolutely right on all counts. Using the politics of avoidance Washington has neglected the difficult decisions that must be made to put our nation on a sustainable path. But that leads me to two questions. First, if the President truly understands the stakes why didn’t he follow through with the deficit commission’s recommendations in full. Second, if he truly hopes for a bipartisan conversation then why didn’t the White House use the announcement to reach across the aisle?

Bipartisanship on this issue wouldn’t have been difficult. The GOP pushed the idea for a non-military pay freeze in May of this year. Despite the obvious agreement, President Obama made no mention of the Republican origin of the freeze during his announcement. Instead, the White House blog took the opportunity to play typical blame-game politics with the issue. Writing for the White House, Jack Lew, was pointing the finger at anyone but the current administration for the financial hole our government now finds itself in. Lew said that “[b]ecause of the irresponsibility of the past decade, the President inherited a $1.3 trillion projected deficit” and “we need to turn our attention to addressing the massive deficits we inherited.” Apparently he’s willing to ignore the historic levels of spending and deficits of the Obama administration.

Nevertheless, the two-year pay-freeze is a positive opening salvo in what is sure to be a hard fought debate over the size and role of government in our lives. Small victories must not distract us from the enormous task that lay ahead. The pay freeze is a start, but we must be careful to remember that it is just that – a start.

by Brandon Greife, Political Director of the College Republican National Committee