Obama Pay Freeze Reaction: 'Draconian' Or 'Welcome' : It's All Politics Obama's plan to freeze the pay of federal civilian workers was either welcomed or panned, depending. The largest union of federal workers accused the president of panicking. Meanwhile, future House Speaker John Boehner claimed it was a GOP idea.
NPR logo Obama Pay Freeze Reaction: 'Draconian' Or 'Welcome'

Obama Pay Freeze Reaction: 'Draconian' Or 'Welcome'

U.S. Border Patrol agent Colin McLean walks up to his patrol vehicle Tuesday, July 21, 2009, in Blaine, Wash. Elaine Thompson/AP Photo hide caption

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Elaine Thompson/AP Photo

No surprise that reaction to President Obama's decision to freeze the pay of civilian federal workers for two years has drawn the kind of reactions you'd expect: organized labor hates it while Republicans say it's good for starters.

A statement from the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employees union:

“This proposal is a superficial panic reaction to the draconian cuts his deficit commission will recommend,” stated AFGE National President John Gage. “A federal pay freeze saves peanuts at best and, while he may mean it as just a public relations gesture, this is no time for political scapegoating. The American people didn’t vote to stick it to a VA nursing assistant making $28,000 a year or a border patrol agent earning $34,000 per year.

“President Obama asks federal workers to share the sacrifice, but it’s unconscionable for him to attack the wages of federal working people while the millionaires and billionaires on Wall Street not only get their bailouts and astronomical bonuses; they also get their tax cuts,” concluded Gage.

By contrast, the next Speaker of the House, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio). welcomed Obama's decision.  Here's his statement:

“I welcome President Obama’s announcement, and hope he will build on it by embracing much-needed steps to reduce both the size and the cost of government, including the net federal hiring freeze Republicans propose in our Pledge to America.  Without a hiring freeze, a pay freeze won’t do much to rein in a federal bureaucracy that added hundreds of thousands of employees to its payroll over the last two years while the private sector shed millions of jobs.

“Today’s action is a clear indication that the Pledge to America, which lays out concrete steps to cut spending and reduce the size of government, is the right plan to address the people’s priorities.  Republicans and Democrats don’t have to wait until January to cut spending and stop all the tax hikes.  We can – and should – start right now.”

NOTE:  Boehner addressed the need for a federal pay freeze at a press conference earlier this month: “I believe strongly – and if you look at the Pledge to America – that there ought to be a freeze on the hiring of new federal employees, and frankly, we ought to freeze the pay.”  In May, House Democrats rejected aYouCut proposal to freeze federal civilian pay.

Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), the House Majority Leader, represents a Maryland district with many civilian federal workers as his constituents.

That may explain why he said the pay freeze should not only apply to civilian workers but military employees, too, so long as they're not serving in combat zones. Those military personnel he would hold harmless.

His statement:

“Millions of Americans are out of work, and many are tightening their belts; Federal employees must be no different. While I appreciate that the President reduced the length of his proposed pay freeze from three to two years, it would have produced significantly more savings had that sacrifice been shared between Federal civilian and military personnel—with a strong exception for the members of our military and civilian employees risking their lives on our behalf in Afghanistan, Iraq, and anywhere else they are serving in harm's way. It would have also added an element of fairness: there has been parity between civilian and military pay raises for 22 of the past 28 years in which raises were authorized, and hundreds of thousands of Federal civilian employees work alongside military employees in the Department of Defense and other agencies. In fact, the first American casualty in Afghanistan was a CIA agent—a federal civilian employee.

“In the coming days, I will review closely President Obama's proposal for its balance between fiscal responsibility and the need to recruit and retain a Federal workforce able to provide the level of service that the American people expect. Because meaningful deficit reduction cannot be achieved through a piecemeal approach to trimming federal spending, I am hopeful that the administration will propose a comprehensive and serious program for deficit reduction that recognizes the need for a comprehensive approach, as has been proposed by the President’s Fiscal Commission, as well as outside groups like the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Rivlin-Domenici Debt Reduction Task Force."

The Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank with strong organized labor leanings, also rapped the pay freeze. Lawrence Mishel, EPI's president said:

In the context of the deficit, Obama will get chump change from freezing federal pay, and will only enlarge the degree to which federal pay lags that of the private sector (a gap of 22%, according to the federal pay agent’s report. See Table 4.)

This is another example of the administration’s tendency to bargain with itself rather than Republicans, and in the process reinforces conservative myths, in this case the myth that federal workers are overpaid. Such a policy also ignores the fact that deficit reduction and loss of pay at a time when the unemployment rate remains above 9% will only weaken a too-weak recovery.