OPM Director Katherine Archuleta blamed the drooping morale in part on furloughs, a three-year pay freeze and cuts to training programs, and issued a warning.

"Without a more predictable and responsible budget situation, we risk losing our most talented employees as well as hurting our ability to recruit top talent for the future," she said.

Chris Edwards, the director of tax policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, said perpetual crisis is not a good environment for making policy, but noted that salary growth in the federal government has outpaced that for workers in the private sector.

He said that is due in large part to the government continuing to award raises even during times of slow economic growth and recessions.

Edwards said the old bargain of a government job —a lower salary than might be available in the private sector, but better benefits and job security — has been replaced by a new system of good pay, good benefits and job security.

He said reforms should focus on finding ways to reward high-performing workers and improving the quality of managers. That would do more for morale than increasing pay, Edwards said.

"It seems like the occasional furlough or government shutdown is the least of federal workers' worries," he said.

But Jeremy Rowell, 39, a prison officer in Georgia who is a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said he feels as if his family has slid in recent years to the bottom edge of the middle class. He said his $50,000 salary is his family's primary income, he has a disabled child and he has suffered medical problems.

During the shutdown, he said, his family switched from loading up the cart at the supermarket once a week to going daily and just buying necessities.

"Nobody's going to get rich off this case," Rowell said. "My hope is that this case goes across the right person's desk before the next shutdown happens and they think twice."