As political rhetoric fires up, federal workers feel the heat

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney at a campaign rally last week in Defiance, Ohio.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney at a campaign rally last week in Defiance, Ohio. (Justin Sullivan, Getty Images)

You can't blame federal workers if they're feeling like a punching bag for politicians these days.

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney rallies supporters with claims that federal workers are overcompensated by as much as 40 percent. The Republican Party vows, in its platform, to reduce their numbers by 10 percent through attrition.

President Barack Obama recently extended the federal pay freeze through next spring, at least. And some members of Congress — mostly Republicans — want to fire federal employees who are severely delinquent on their taxes.

"Our members have been feeling under siege for quite some time now. It started after the midterm elections," said Gina Lightfoot Walker, federal director of the National Association of Government Employees.

Federal workers have long been an easy target for politicians who want to portray themselves as foes of big government. And it's easier for candidates to pledge to cut workers than detail what programs or services they would eliminate.

Such tough talk also strikes a chord with workers outside of government who have seen their jobs and benefits slashed in the wake of the recession.

"There is a sense that government employees have it easy, they are overpaid, their benefits are too cushy, they get too many days off and don't work as hard," said Don Kettl, dean of the school of public policy at the University of Maryland, College Park. But he added that the image does not fit the reality: "The government is not full of freeloading, overpaid people."

Campaign rhetoric about the federal workforce is part of the larger debate between Democrats and Republicans on the role of government, said Adam Sheingate, an associate professor of political science at the Johns Hopkins University.

Republican arguments in favor of a smaller federal workforce are more likely to resonate with voters far away from the beltway than in Maryland, which has a high concentration of government employees.

"In the country at large, very few people have contact with federal workers," Sheingate said. "The federal government is this kind of distant and abstract entity, which is somewhat invisible to most people."

The number of federal civilian workers — excluding the U.S. Postal Service — was 2.2 million as of September, an increase of 155,200 since the month before Obama took office, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But even before Obama, federal employment had been on the upswing, with the Bush administration adding jobs in defense, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs.

"It's not as if the Obama administration came in and hit the government employment accelerator," Kettl said.

Romney says he wants to reduce the federal workforce by 10 percent through attrition. For each two workers who leave, he says, he would hire only one replacement.

Critics aren't concerned only about the number of workers, but also about the pay.

The conservative Heritage Foundation published a study two years ago in which researchers concluded that salaries and benefits of federal employees are 30 percent to 40 percent higher than those for their counterparts in the private sector. Those are the figures Romney cites when he says federal workers are overcompensated.

Results from other pay studies are all over the map. Some agree that federal workers are paid more.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office found that to be true among less-educated workers, but reported that federal workers with advanced degrees are paid 23 percent less than their private sector peers. (The Government Accountability Office reported in June that federal work on average now requires more advanced degrees than the private sector because the government hires a greater proportion of scientists, engineers and program managers.)

And researchers with the Federal Salary Council, an advisory body within the executive branch, concluded in a study released this month that federal workers on average are paid 34.6 percent less than workers in the private sector as well as in state and local government.

That pay gap has grown by 8 percentage points from a year earlier, partly because of the two-year pay freeze for federal workers, said Jacque Simon, public policy director for the American Federation of Government Employees.

The NAGE's Lightfoot Walker maintains that federal workers are paid less. But even if they were paid more, she added, "We need to pull those private sector workers up, not race to the bottom."

Federal workers are fighting back against campaign trail rhetoric. They've launched campaigns to educate the public about the work they do, from supporting veterans and handling benefits for the elderly to testing the safety of food and drugs.

The National Federation of Federal Employees launched a blog, "I am a Federal Employee," aimed at putting a human face on government work.

And federal employees are throwing their support behind candidates most likely to support them. The Center for Responsive Politics reported that government workers are the fifth-largest contributors to Obama's re-election campaign.