Defrost federal pay

In certain circles, it’s always open season on the federal workforce. They are goldbrickers or the “deep state,” they are incompetent or corrupt, they are job-killers or they are paper-pushers wrapping everything in red tape and bureaucracy. So when President Donald Trump announces — as he did on Thursday — that he wants federal workers to have no pay raise in 2019, one can almost hear the cheers rise up.

Here’s the problem with that. Whether your vision of a federal worker is a devil in a grey suit or it’s a VA doctor helping a wounded veteran, a scientist protecting the quality of your drinking water or your medicine, or a Social Security worker making sure the retiree in your family gets paid this month, it’s in everyone’s best interest to have the most efficient and effective and least costly federal workforce possible. So the question is: Does a pay raise serve that goal or detract from it? The answer is it detracts. Here’s why.

First, let’s dispense with the notion that government is all good or all bad, all overpaid or underpaid. Like any large organization, there are inevitably poor performers and there are excellent performers. But many of the problems associated with bureaucracy aren’t of any individual’s making. They are a product of bad decision making at the top. Not deliberately bad, of course, but systemically bad. Political appointees may not believe in, or necessarily even understand, an agency’s mission, and so it becomes aimless and ineffective. The push and pull of politics has sometimes had government working at cross purposes, regulating tobacco while also promoting its use, for example. Meanwhile, old habits die hard and inertia sets in. Members of Congress decry spending but won’t give up their own pork barrel projects. The list goes on and on.

You want a smaller, more effective federal government? That requires the heavy lifting of deciding what functions are vital and which are not. Those can be tough calls, and a Congress so gridlocked and partisan that it is unable to even pass a budget from one year to the next is singularly ill-equipped to perform that kind of surgery. And so inefficiencies tend to snowball. And then come across-the-board budget cuts that reduce short-term costs but rarely do much about long-term problems.

A federal pay freeze at a time of prosperity — and President Trump has used even more flowery terms to describe the current economy — is a classic example of tossing out a baby with the bathwater. In his letter to Congress, Mr. Trump claims it’s necessary because of “serious economic conditions,” by which he means a looming deficit of his own making. He’s correct to be concerned about the deficit (corporate tax receipts are down for the year), but the cause isn’t federal pay. It’s rising because of the Trump tax cuts that skewed toward high-income Americans coupled with increased discretionary spending. The White House’s own budget experts forecast that the deficit will exceed 5 percent of the overall economy next year, an unprecedented imbalance at a time when the nation is not in an economic recession.

Frozen federal pay won’t do much to solve it. The billions involved are a drop in the bucket compared to that $1.5 trillion tax cut. Instead, it will aggravate the real problems within the bureaucracy as quality people won’t be attracted to federal service — if not immediately, eventually. The best policy? Pay federal workers what they are worth, no more and no less. Federal pay seems high to the rest of the country because the D.C. area has a high cost of living. Marylanders know this better than anyone.

And, finally, we must acknowledge that Maryland’s economy will get slammed if this decision stands — just as it was hurt when federal pay was frozen for three years by President Barack Obama in 2011 at the height of the last recession. Gov. Larry Hogan called Mr. Trump’s plan “simply wrong” and called on Congress to remedy it. That could happen. While the House appears to support the freeze, the Senate has already approved a 1.9 percent pay increase. That’s sensible. But then it’s relatively easy for Mr. Hogan to advocate for that raise despite his political affiliations. Just as it’s easy for Mr. Trump to advocate the no-political-pain, all-political-gain course of shortchanging federal workers to finance his handout to large corporations and the wealthy.

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