Today, the United States possesses the most efficient public sector in the world, one whose mission is to execute the public policies of the nation without regard to politics or party, serve and protect the American people, and save taxpayer money.
Particularly during these days of national and international uncertainty, it is imperative that our 1.8 million federal civilian employees be recognized and rewarded for delivering a vast range of essential services to the American people, from homeland security to veterans’ medical care.
As a significant portion of the federal work force becomes eligible to retire over the next few years, it is also critical that Congress do more to make working for the public sector an attractive career option for newly minted college graduates — most of whom never even consider the federal civil service when contemplating career options.
It is for these reasons that this week I will offer, along with Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., and Rep. Jim Moran D-Va., an amendment to the Transportation and Treasury appropriations bill ensuring that compensation for civilian federal employees in 2006 will be sufficient to support efforts to recruit and retain the best employees. Our amendment will mandate that the compensation for federal civilian employees in 2006 be increased at the same rate that has been proposed in President Bush’s budget for the uniformed services.
For 2006, the administration has proposed a 3.1 percent increase for the military and only a 2.3 percent increase for federal civilian employees. The administration’s contention has been that military personnel who are in harm’s way deserve a higher increase.
I could not agree more. But in my judgment, a better compensation policy would propose the same basic 3.1 percent increase for military personnel and federal civilian employees, and provide an additional increase to those brave men and women in the armed services who are serving in combat or high-risk zones, such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Simply put, we should recognize the service of our soldiers not by shortchanging civilian employees but by raising military pay at a higher rate than would occur if our nation were not at war.
The administration has also argued that there is no need to offer competitive pay adjustments to civilian federal employees because there is no shortage of people interested in joining the civil service, and relatively little attrition once they join it.
That may be true, but it misses the more important point that quantity and quality are not the same. An analogy I like to use is professional basketball. Is it likely the Washington Wizards would have trouble finding players to fill its roster if the team’s management decided to freeze the payroll at the level it was during the 1978-79 season? The answer is no. Plenty of marginal players, unable to secure a spot on other National Basketball Association teams, would line up to join the Wizards. Would the Wizards have made it to this year’s playoffs with such players? Probably not.
The good news is the federal government doesn’t have to pay NBA salaries to attract outstanding people. But something needs to be done if a human capital crisis is to be averted in the next few years. The civilian public-private sector wage gap has been calculated to be as high as 32 percent in some areas of the country. That is unacceptable if the civil sector is to continue attracting and retaining talented people whose interest in public service may be dampened by the need to pay off student loans and support families.
All else being equal, a highly skilled job applicant will usually take a private-sector job if the pay is better than a similar one in the public sector. Until Congress and the White House agree on a compensation system that accurately values the work of federal civilian employees compared with the work performed by their private-sector counterparts, every effort must be made to prevent this gap from widening.
For most of the last 20 years, including January of this year, Congress has sought to keep the pay gap in check by providing civilian federal employees with the same pay raise as that proposed for our armed forces. Next year should be no different.
Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., is minority whip of the House of Representatives.