Two dogs occasionally wait, tethered outside the Starbucks near Federal News Radio’s elegant studios. They stand there looking bored, waiting for their owner to come back out with her $5 watery latte. The other morning I waked over to say hello — to the dogs, that is — when the smaller one burst forth into a snarling bark, teeth and gums bared. I jumped back so fast I practically knocked over my newscast partner, Eric White.
You never know what might set off a dog. But you do know what — like a dog whistle — sets off federal interest groups. Yep, any grand report comparing private and federal salaries.
The Congressional Budget Office did it this time. It finds for high school graduates without higher degrees, federal pay is 34 percent higher than private sector. Only when you get to the Ph.D. or equivalent level do average federal salaries come in below those in the private sector. CBO also gave the advantage to the federal benefits package, especially the defined benefit pension to which employees pay in a small portion of their salaries.
Hearing the call, the first to bark and excoriate the report, the American Federation of Government Employees. National President J. David Cox called the report “flawed” and “faulty.” He cited “scientific studies by the government’s own wage experts,” saying that in fact federal salaries are 34 percent lower than comparable private sector salaries. He suspects the report was issued with the motive of inducing Congress to chisel federal employees. After all, CBO does say the government could cut its payroll by cutting pay of the less educated employees but increasing the pay of the more educated ones.
Sort of an official income inequality policy?
Also joining the fox chase: Andrew Biggs of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. He’s issued this type of report on his own research several times, showing federal employees in general earn more. Biggs cites the low level of contribution to generous pensions as elevating federal employees above the private sector in total compensation.
I remember a professor long ago saying, “If you encase one bare foot in dry ice and the other in boiling oil, on average you’re doing fine.”
Averages have their limitations. And, as CBO itself points out on page six, many variables exist in these kinds of comparisons. It says its analysts incorporated the differences into its comparison. Notably, only 13 percent of the government workforce has only a high school degree, but it’s 36 percent in the private sector, nearly a 3x factor. The opposite is true for the ultra-educated. In government 9 percent of the workforce has a doctorate or professional degree, versus 3 percent in the private sector.
Other CBO assertions are debatable. Like: “The attributes of the federal workforce are more like those of private-sector workers at large firms than those of workers at small firms, because both large firms and federal agencies tend to require a workforce that is more specialized and educated than small firms do.” Well, what kind of small firm? A string of blow-dry shops or a data mining software startup?
The real question, though, is unstated: are federal employees paid too much or too little?
Don’t ask me. I tend to look at things empirically. Can they own homes? Educate their kids? Take a decent vacation once a year? Have some insulation from the vicissitudes of health care? If you’re a young prison guard in Winton, North Carolina, you’re probably not buying a second home in the Hamptons. If you’re an SES in Northern Virginia and your spouse has a nice contractor job, you can probably snag an Acura SUV and maybe have a condo at Rehoboth.
Neither will starve. Neither will fly fractional. Life doesn’t resolve into easy answers like who is paid too much or too little.
The federal payroll ran to $215 billion in 2016. About 20 percent of the so-called discretionary budget, although thousands and thousands of feds administer the trillions that are non-discretionary. You can always cut pay. But what does that really buy?