The early reviews of President Obama’s plan to freeze federal worker pay are in — and it gets a resounding “F” from just about everybody outside of GOP leadership.
Michael Linden, a budget expert at the liberal Center for American Progress, said the plan is small potatoes that risks driving away valuable civil servants with little budgetary upside.
“Bluntly doing it this way, we risk cutting off our nose to spite our face,” Linden said in a phone interview. “We risk not hiring good people, we risk not giving a raise to people who deserve a raise, and we miss not cutting the pay of those who deserve a pay cut.”
Linden recalled similarities between the plan Obama announced today and his previous call at an earlier political low point for a discretionary spending freeze.
“Both are sort of blunt instruments for reducing the deficit that don’t reduce the deficit very much,” Linden said. “The pay freeze is actually much smaller than the discretionary spending freeze,” in budget terms.
If enacted, the proposal will disproportionately impact middle-income earners.
“The vast majority of federal employees are middle-class workers. That’s who we’re asking to take a hit,” Linden explained. “Maybe we have to ask them to take a hit [but] certainly we shouldn’t ask them to take the hit before the wealthiest two percent. Maybe down the line we’ll ask middle class to take the hit. But I’d really prefer not asking them to take the hit at the start.”
Larry Mishel, director of the liberal Economic Policy Institute, was equally blunt.
In a statement Mishel warned,”In the context of the deficit, Obama will get chump change from freezing federal pay, and will only enlarge the degree to which federal pay lags that of the private sector (a gap of 22%, according to the federal pay agent’s report).”
This is another example of the administration’s tendency to bargain with itself rather than Republicans, and in the process reinforces conservative myths, in this case the myth that federal workers are overpaid. Such a policy also ignores the fact that deficit reduction and loss of pay at a time when the unemployment rate remains above 9% will only weaken a too-weak recovery.
Republicans predictably and eagerly pocketed the gesture, and welcomed Obama to move even further in their direction.
“I welcome President Obama’s announcement, and hope he will build on it by embracing much-needed steps to reduce both the size and the cost of government, including the net federal hiring freeze Republicans propose in our Pledge to America,” said soon-to-be House Speaker John Boehner in a statement. “Without a hiring freeze, a pay freeze won’t do much to rein in a federal bureaucracy that added hundreds of thousands of employees to its payroll over the last two years while the private sector shed millions of jobs. Today’s action is a clear indication that the Pledge to America, which lays out concrete steps to cut spending and reduce the size of government, is the right plan to address the people’s priorities.”
“We are pleased that President Obama appears ready to join our efforts. As the recent election made clear, Americans are fed up with a government that spends too much, borrows too much and grows too much,” said House Minority Whip Eric Cantor.
Meanwhile, administration officials made clear today that the White House secured no parallel commitments from the GOP, characterizing the proposal as a tough but necessary piece of the White House’s commitment to deficit reduction.
That’s not usually how this stuff works. “If you think about the large deficit reduction attempts in the past — 1990 and 1993 — it was a large scale deal struck in 1990 and the Dems going alone in 1993,” Linden said. “I don’t know that there’s any precedent for dipping your toes into the deficit reduction pool before diving in.”
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at email@example.com.