Federal pay freeze: more things stay the same

Kathryn Ciano Associate, Institute for Justice
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Five short months after Democrats called Republicans’ suggestion to freeze federal pay a “cynical ploy,” President Obama announces his plan to freeze federal paychecks until 2013.

“We can’t afford to fall back onto the same old ideologies or the same stale sound bites,” said the President upon announcing his plan.

This is an example of pointlessly partisan squaring off, as each side of the aisle attempts to paint the other as responsible for the continuing recession. But this is not a partisan problem at all. Real solutions will come with shrinking government and letting the private sector do what it does best: creating jobs and growth.

Freezing federal paychecks is a stale platitude. In an era of extreme government expansion, the administration has not even considered downsizing the federal work force or cutting back on hiring. A federal pay freeze is like a gag gift for the economy: It’s not what you want, and it’s not going to change anything, but it gives the administration something to point to while the White House decides what changes might actually help.

According to the official White House blog:

The President went through his various efforts to scrape tens of billions in saving out of the budget, from the line-by-line review, to aggressively going after improper government payments, to selling off $8 billion of unneeded federal land and buildings, to proposing a three-year freeze on all non-security discretionary spending — “a step that would bring that spending to its lowest level as a share of the economy in 50 years.”

Everything the President “scraped” to pull together these billions is mere excess. Not only is the President barely cutting the fat; he has categorically refused to change the habits that made us fat in the first place.

We are in the midst of a deep economic recession; there should not be lingering “unneeded federal land and buildings” or much “discretionary spending” left to cut. We cannot afford to be Keynesians now; it makes little sense for the executive branch to preserve the government’s option to spend when it comes at the direct expense of individuals and the private sector.

Steny Hoyer, the second-ranking House Democrat, said when the Republicans counseled freezing federal salaries in June: “We need to reject this cynical ploy to make federal employees a scapegoat for spending after congressional Republicans added trillions to the debt when they were in the majority.”

Opponents admit that a freeze is largely symbolic. Freezing federal paychecks will save the government less than $3 billion — a drop in the bucket compared to a looming $1 trillion national debt for 2009 alone.

In fact, the freeze will likely have no actual effect on federal workers’ paychecks. Freezing paychecks stops only direct raises but has no effect on promotions or job classification upgrades, which are mandated by statute.

Forcing partisanship by installing a milder version of political opponents’ plan is not an honest attempt to gain control of our staggering deficit. Halting federal employees’ promotions in words if not in deed is hardly a bargaining chip, played not to save our nation’s economy, but rather to leverage the federal government against the private sector.

If the White House wanted to fix the economy, it would focus on controlling the growth of government. It would actually offer a fresh approach, and not more rhetoric attempting to make yet more government expansion more palatable.

Freezing federal paychecks is not a solution. It is barely a move at all, more like a weak first step designed to keep the ball firmly in the expansionists’ court. President Obama has added 141,000 permanent jobs to the federal government since he took office, with countless other temporary job programs designed to buoy public employment at the expense of the private sector.

Fixing the economy will require real change. Even yes-men willing to leverage the military in wartime (in the name of “fairness”) can see that freezing federal pay is a fluff move designed to deflect criticism.

Big Government operators, the ball is still in your court — now is a great time to make the kind of real change you promised.

Kathryn Ciano is the Warren T. Brookes Journalism Fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.