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Molly Moorhead
By Molly Moorhead August 15, 2012

Little to no movement

A month before Republicans won control of the U.S. House of Representatives  in 2010, soon-to-be Majority Leader Eric Cantor made a case to the Wall Street Journal why voters should put the GOP back in power.

Cantor, a Virginia congressman, promised to cut federal spending "as much as we can,” including by reining in federal wages. Cantor said federal civilian employees' pay had become exaggerated and should be more in line with private sector pay scales.

We talked to John Palguta, vice president for policy at the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan group that studies the federal workforce. His group favors aligning federal pay with the private sector but disagrees with the premise that federal employees" pay is bloated. For example, secretarial and clerical work tends to be underpaid in government, while some professional occupations are better compensated than in private companies, he said.

A recent report by the Government Accountability Office found no definitive way to compare salary discrepancies. One 2011 report found federal workers behind by 24 percent, while others "have found that the shortfall runs in the other direction by that much or more,” according to the Washington Post.

But in terms of congressional efforts to align federal pay scales with the market across the board, little has been done.

In late 2010, President Barack Obama announced a two-year federal pay freeze, and Congress approved it with a short-term budget fix. Republicans want to extend the freeze through 2013. The House has voted several times to that effect, but the White House opposes an extension.

Other efforts have sought to rein in federal compensation on the benefits side. In February 2012, Congress approved legislation, which was part of a deal to extend payroll tax cuts, that requires federal employees hired after Dec. 31, 2012, and those with less than five years of federal service to contribute an additional 2.3 percent to their pension plan. Current employees did not see their contribution rate rise, but that too is a solution sought by Republicans. In April, the House Oversight and Government Reform committee passed legislation that would increase federal employees' contributions to their pensions by 5 percent over five years.

But those efforts are going nowhere in the Democratic-led Senate.

What's more, Palguta said, freezes and benefit cuts don't fix the problem of wage disparities.

"You simply have exacerbated any misalignments,” he said. "The bottom line is that in terms of making federal pay more market-sensitive, nothing substantial has occurred.”

Republicans have kept up efforts to reduce the federal payroll in the name of cutting spending in Washington. But the only measure that has been enacted required new employees to chip in more toward their pensions. That hits federal workers' bottom line, to be sure, but it doesn't advance the goal of adjusting government pay to be aligned with the market. We rate this a Promise Broken.

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