By MARSHA MERCER
Congress passed a two-year civilian federal pay freeze Tuesday, a step the White House says will save $5 billion by the end of 2012, $28 billion over the next five years and more than $60 billion over 10 years.
OK, but it’s not about the money.
Oh, sure, when President Barack Obama proposed the two-year freeze last month, he said shared sacrifice would be necessary to tame the raging federal deficit. Trouble is, the savings are drops in the $1.3 trillion deficit bucket.
What freezing federal pay does is begin to repair the public’s perception of Washington as clueless and out of touch. Next: Members of Congress should freeze their own pay for another year, as they have the last two.
As 2010 winds to a gloomy close, a spate of polls confirms what we already know. Americans are unhappy – with the country’s direction, with the economy, with Congress, with the president and with the government. Only 17 percent of us are satisfied with the way things are going, Gallup reported.
“For Public, Tough Year Ends on a Down Note,” the Pew Research Center for People & the Press announced.
We’re in the dumps about high unemployment and the sputtering economy. Neither is likely to turn around anytime soon. Only about one in three people see the economy improving in the next year, the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey found.
It’s easy to assume bleak is the new black, our new normal.
But here’s another number: 83. That’s the percent that said a three-year pay freeze for federal employees and members of Congress is “totally” or “mostly acceptable,” according to the NBC-Journal poll.
Naturally, it’s easy to freeze someone else’s pay, and most people still don’t work for the government. The overwhelming support of a pay freeze is about the public’s sense that government workers can’t understand the pain private sector workers feel.
While most American workers have faced years of job insecurity, furloughs, layoffs, and pay and benefit cuts, they’ve continued to pay the salaries of federal employees who have been largely insulated from these anxieties.
The ranks of federal workers making $150,000 a year or more “has soared tenfold in the past five years and doubled since President Obama took office,” USA Today reported last month.
The newspaper’s analysis found that the average compensation of federal workers is twice that of private sector employees. Federal workers have gotten bigger pay raises and benefit increases than private sector employees for nine years in a row.
USA Today reported on Bureau of Economic Analysis data that found “federal civil servants earned average pay and benefits of $123,049 in 2009, while private workers made $61,051 in total compensation.”
When Obama proposed the two-year pay freeze last month, he said, “The hard truth is that getting this deficit under control is going to require some broad sacrifice. And that sacrifice must be shared by the employees of the federal government.”
The political truth is that Republicans were already talking about a pay freeze, and Obama’s bipartisan deficit-reduction commission called for a three-year pay freeze a few days later.
Federal workers’ unions argue that workers do feel economic pain and that a pay freeze for federal employees is patently unfair when Congress is cutting taxes for the wealthiest Americans. It’s true that the sacrifice is uneven, but it could be worse. Federal workers reportedly still will be eligible for bonuses and promotions.
Members of Congress, having read the handwriting on the wall, refrained from giving themselves pay raises in 2009 and 2010. Senators and representatives make $174,000 a year, with the leadership making more. It would be unseemly Congress to get raises while doctors and nurses in veterans’ hospitals, FBI agents and security officers do without.
The good news in all the gloom is that Americans remain stubbornly optimistic. More than half – 55 percent – of those Pew surveyed think 2011 will be better than 2010.
It’s largely symbolic, but a freeze in federal civilian and congressional pay is good symbolism. The pay freeze may save $60 billion in 10 years. If it warms taxpayers to their government, though, that would be priceless.
© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.