Both parties have adopted a mantra of protecting federal employees during the recent government shutdown and ongoing showdown over immigration. Last month, all House Democrats and 29 Republicans voted to increase federal pay by 2.6 percent. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said the effort was about "treating federal employees with the respect they deserve and compensating them for the financial stress the Trump-McConnell shutdown has inflicted on them."
But the reality is federal employees are hardly victims. While it’s true that many are hard-working patriots who could earn significantly more in the private sector, many are not. Still, politicians reflexively defend the status quo out of fear of a political backlash. Their goal is not to protect federal employees or taxpayers, but themselves.
Setting priorities and making smart cuts to lower-priority positions, particularly during a shutdown or crisis, is far more compassionate and responsible than collectively punishing not only all federal employees, but the country and generations that follow.
At OpenTheBooks.com, we’ve documented the bloat in the federal workforce.
Today, there are more than 1.3 million federal employees in administrative agencies who cost taxpayers $114 billion in cash compensation alone. There are more than 91,000 federal employees who out-earn the governor of the state in which they are based. Compensation is so out-of-control that painters, mechanics, electricians, and welders employed by federal agencies now out-earn governors.
This is hardly the portrait of suffering that Hoyer and other Washington politicians invoke. In 78 large federal agencies, the average salary now exceeds $100,000. Providing an average of 8 ½ weeks of holiday, vacation and sick day benefits for federal employees itself costs over $18 billion annually.
While President Trump can’t unilaterally end or defund wasteful programs, federal personnel rules do allow him to permanently eliminate positions for employees who have been furloughed for 30 days. He had this opportunity and missed it during the shutdown, but he could still incorporate smart downsizing demands in his ongoing negotiations with Congress.
Trump has led by example in this area and needs to apply his leadership to the broader federal workforce. The president cut White House staff by 100 employees, a 20 percent reduction that will save taxpayers more than $22 million over four years.
Our oversight of the Department of Education found Secretary Betsy DeVos eliminated 800 lower-priority positions in her department, an 18 percent reduction. In 2012, the department employed 4,600 staffers. Today, there are 3,800, with average pay of $110,000. Savings can be estimated at more than $80 million annually.
Politicians may consider this approach to be draconian but the private sector considers it good management. General Electric CEO Jack Welch famously fired the bottom 10 percent of his workforce every year while rewarding the top 20 percent and nurturing the other 70 percent. Rather than punishing the president, taxpayers would applaud him for reforming a federal bureaucracy that’s looking more and more like France’s.
The president must recognize that Republican unity on the border wall fight is a mile wide and inch deep. Republicans are torn between not wanting to undermine the president on a policy they support and the knowledge that their negotiating stance lacks popular support and real leverage. Having served during the government shutdown of 1995-1996, I have no doubt that the vast of majority of Republicans are looking for a way to fold and Democrats know this.
President Trump should not take federal employees off the table in his negotiations with Congress and should increase his ask rather than lowering it. Investing all of his political capital on a physical barrier on the border has lowered the fiscal barrier around the Treasury. The American people care about both. Making hard decision on the fiscal front makes all of his priorities easier to execute.
Individual federal employees aren’t the problem per se. The problem is previous Congresses and administrations that have failed to respect and protect taxpayers by setting priorities. Making hard decisions that put the county’s long-term interests first will generate far more benefits than pain.