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In defense of the federal worker

Federal workers are America's new favorite target. This month, President Obama proposed freezing their pay for two years.

"Getting this deficit under control is going to require some broad sacrifices," he said, "and that sacrifice must be shared by the employees of the federal government."

Meanwhile, the president's bipartisan deficit commission endorsed a three-year pay freeze and a 200,000-person reduction of the federal work force.

But are federal workers really the problem behind the struggling economy and the bloated budget• To answer, let's first dispense with some widespread misunderstandings about our federal employees:

1. Federal workers are overpaid compared with private-sector workers.

Conservative think tanks, including the Cato Institute, make much of data that do not offer fair comparisons of similar public-sector and private-sector jobs or account for how experience and education affect pay.

Though some critics question their accuracy, government analyses show that federal employees make on average 24 percent less than their private-sector counterparts. The average private-sector salary in 2010 for a recent college graduate was $48,661. Entry-level federal workers start at $34,075, or $42,209 for candidates with superior academic achievement.

On the other hand, some federal blue-collar and clerical workers are paid more than those in the private sector. The ongoing debate about federal pay, however, does not address the root problem: The government does not have a pay system flexible enough to recruit the best talent and pay in accordance with the market.

2. The federal work force is bigger than ever.

Not including the U.S. Postal Service, the federal government employs 2.1 million people. The work force is now slightly smaller than it was in 1967, at the height of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, and today there are 100 million more Americans to serve.

Even during the Reagan administration, when small government was a political mantra, there were still between 2.1 and 2.2 million federal workers. In fact, there was an increase of about 95,000 federal employees between 1981 and 1989.

3. You can't fire a federal worker.

In the 2009 fiscal year, 11,275 federal employees were fired for poor performance or misconduct. In addition, a survey of federal managers by the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board suggests that besides those who are formally terminated, there are a sizable number of employees who voluntarily leave after they are counseled that their performance is unacceptable.

4. Most federal workers are paper-pushing clerks.

The vast majority of federal workers hold white-collar professional, administrative and technical jobs and aren't just college dropouts archiving triplicates of your tax return. Approximately 20 percent of federal workers have a master's degree, professional degree or doctorate vs. 13 percent in the private sector. Fifty-one percent of federal employees have at least a college degree, compared with 35 percent in the private sector.

5. Pay or hiring freezes would help slash the federal budget.

Clearly, hard choices are needed to restore our nation's fiscal health. But across-the-board pay and hiring freezes avoid tough strategic decisions. The real question is not what can we cut but how can we best save money.

History has taught us that arbitrary, broad hiring and pay freezes don't return significant cost savings. How much will the government save by cutting 10 percent of the federal work force -- about 200,000 employees -- as recommended by the president's deficit commission?

If the work of federal employees is simply contracted to the private sector, the savings could be minimal or the move could even cost us more.

If government employees are not replaced and their salaries are returned to the Treasury, the government would save at most $20 billion annually or roughly 0.5 percent of total budget outlays.

Bottom line: We cannot come close to balancing the budget simply by cutting federal staffers or their salaries.

Max Stier is president and chief executive of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. He has worked for all three branches of the federal government.

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