Pay Pain

The new context of the endless debate over federal salaries.

In early December, when President Obama announced that he had reached a deal on extending Bush-era tax cuts with congressional Republicans, the reaction from his base in the Democratic Party was swift, harsh and predictable.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., practically had to invent new words to describe her outrage, character-izing the proposal with terms like "nonsensicalness" and "moral corruptness." She was hardly the only lawmaker on the left who took issue with Obama's tax policy.

A week earlier, though, an Obama proposal that also fell in line with the GOP agenda got a very different reaction. When the president backed a two-year freeze on across-the-board federal pay raises, the reaction among Democrats was relatively muted. Lawmakers representing large numbers of federal employees protested. They tried to get Congress to limit the freeze to a single year, arguing that any proposal for a second year should be considered in the broader context of deficit reduction. But for the most part, such entreaties fell on deaf ears.

The prevailing wisdom apparently is that it's time for federal employees to experience the same kind of hit in their pocketbooks that many private sector employees have faced since the beginning of the economic downturn. Even some federal employees seem to share this view. A Facebook group aimed at feds called It's Okay, Freeze My Pay launched in response to Obama's proposal and quickly garnered more than 1,000 fans.

It's clear that the context in which the annual (actually, these days it seems like nonstop) federal pay debate occurs has changed dramatically. For much of 2010, federal employee advocates had to fight a rear guard action against think tank studies and news media reports alleging federal salaries are rising rapidly and now, in many cases, exceed those in the private sector.

So what's next in the pay battle? Don't be surprised if the debate returns to another age-old issue: strengthening the link between pay and job performance. In our cover story this month, Emily Long explores how that is likely to play out.

One big problem is recent efforts at overhauling civilian personnel structures at the Defense and Homeland Security departments to link pay and performance have foundered. Now it seems most of government is back at square one when it comes to determining how to appropriately measure performance. The good news is the Defense and DHS experience can inform that process. The bad news is it still is a very tricky challenge.

Meeting the challenge will be critical to putting recent controversies over freezes and pay disparities behind us-at least until the next debate over what government employees make blows up.

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