Administration ignores federal salary legislation

When the mechanism regulating federal salaries was enacted into law in 1990, readers of this column will recall that I expressed skepticism that the government would comply with it. As it turns out, my doubts were justified.

The Federal Employees Pay Compatibility Act, also known as the Pay Reform law, said federal salaries should be comparable to those of nonfederal employees on a local, rather than a national, basis. Despite the passage of this law, Congress has continued to acquiesce to presidential calls for federal pay restraint.

This begs the question: Why is Congress willing to pass legislation and then turn a blind eye to the issues the law addresses? Recently, the leaders of all the major federal employee unions wrote to the director of the Office of Personnel Management raising this very question.

The unions reminded the head of OPM that the law's enactment "followed a four-year bipartisan effort and provided for a 10-year phase-in to achieve total comparability." It is now abundantly clear that the "14-year march to comparability" described in the unions' letter has turned into a crawl.

Under the 1990 law, the government has to close 70 percent of the disparity between federal and nonfederal pay scales by Jan. 1, 1999. However, the unions noted that the funds allocated in the 1999 budget would cover less than a third of the increase needed to close the gap by 70 percent.

The unions also noted that the 1990 law provides that federal employees shall receive comparability, or "locality," adjustments annually based on surveys by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The law allows the government to pay employees a different amount than that prescribed by the BLS surveys only in circumstances of "national emergency or serious economic conditions affecting the general welfare."

Although President Clinton continually reminds us how well the economy is performing, even he doesn't have the chutzpah to claim that "serious economic conditions" have prevented him from complying with the law.

The unions noted that various indicators used to assess the health of the economy "show an extremely strong economy, with a balanced budget or surplus expected in the very near future, and inflation and unemployment at the lowest levels in decades." But as the unions pointed out, the president declares an "economic emergency" each year without fail.

The letter from the unions acknowledged that the Clinton administration stated in its annual budget submission that the federal "pay-setting methodology" is inaccurate. But the administration did not identify any specific problems with the existing system used for calculating federal employee pay, nor did it propose ways to "fix" it.

According to the unions, pay raises that have been granted have been "arbitrary," which I believe is putting it mildly. I believe that the way the president and Congress have behaved reflects their contempt for federal employees.

In its dealings with federal employees, the government holds all the cards. Private-sector employers must compete with each other for the limited pool of nonfederal workers. With only one federal government, there is no comparable competition for the services of federal employees. Moreover, federal employees cannot strike, so they have no real way to demand higher wages.

Of course, a federal worker who is unhappy with his compensation is free to seek a higher-paying job. So does that mean that those who work for the federal government cannot get higher-paying jobs? Some would argue that it does, and that federal employees are being paid what they're worth. But if you buy that argument, it follows that Congress and the president do not want the best and brightest people working for Uncle Sam. Is that an acceptable national policy? I think not.

I think some bright and able people leave government service for greener pastures, but I also believe that a high percentage of very capable individuals remain in federal service despite low wages. These people either care deeply about their country or do not want to change employers in mid-career.

By and large, federal workers are representative of the nation as a whole. They are not a pack of bumbling idiots who cannot do better.

If you agree with my assessment, then how do you explain the behavior of Congress and the executive branch? The only logical explanation I can come up with is that government leaders are ignorant regarding the consequences of their behavior. If you have a better explanation, let me hear it.

Bureaucratus is a retired federal employee who contributes regularly to Federal Computer Week. His e-mail address is bureaucratus@fcw.com.

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