Ted Kaufman - United States Senator for Delaware

Kaufman Calls Tax Extenders Amendment an Attempt to “Scapegoat” Federal Employees

A longtime champion of public service, Senator counters attempt to impose blanket pay, hiring freeze across federal government

June 17, 2010

WASHINGTON, DC – In a speech on the Senate floor Thursday, Senator Ted Kaufman (D-DE) blasted an amendment to the Tax Extenders bill that would have frozen pay for all non-military federal employees, as well as capped hiring across the federal government. An unrealistic attempt to reduce the deficit, the amendment was the latest in what Kaufman described as a series of “baseless attacks” on federal workers. The amendment was defeated in a procedural vote, 57-41.
 
“Over the years, as I’ve witnessed countless acts of personal courage, devotion to country, and real sacrifice, I have also seen and heard such disheartening and baseless attacks against those who choose to serve,” said Kaufman, who since last May has honored 79 “Great Federal Employees” in weekly speeches on the Senate floor, thanking them for their hard work and dedication to serving the American people.
 
The effect of this amendment on our government’s ability to address serious issues we face “would be disastrous,” said Kaufman. “Federal employees continue to serve unfortunately to some as a convenient scapegoat. At a moment when we are faced with a difficult choice about how to reduce our deficit and get our economy moving again, this amendment represents an easy cop-out,” he continued.  The amendment “assigns blame and does not really address the budgetary problems we face.”
 
Rebutting the argument that federal employees are paid higher on average than their private sector counterparts, Kaufman highlighted several of those he has honored as part of his “Great Federal Employee Initiative,” citing the pay cuts many have taken in order to work in government.  The Federal Salary Council reported in October 2009 that federal employees made an average of 26% less in 2009 than those working in comparable private sector jobs.  This represents an increase in the pay gap between the private and public sectors, continuing a long trend.  
 
Citing the words of Max Stier, President and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, Kaufman said the salaries of federal and private sector employees is “not an apples-to-apples” comparison. “You cannot simply ask what the average salaries for budget analysts are in the private sector and for budget analysts in government. Contrary to what many have said, federal workers’ salaries are actually lower, not higher, than those in the private sector.”  
 
Kaufman also pointed out that it will be federal employees who carry out the programs passed by Congress aimed at meeting our most pressing challenges, including the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, civilian operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and efforts to reform Wall Street, among others.
 
“There are enormous demands placed on civil servants today, and Congress must ensure that our government has enough of the right people in the right jobs with the right skills to serve the American people – no more, and no less, ” said Stier, in response to Kaufman’s latest effort to defend federal employees. “We commend Senator Kaufman for his leadership in addressing this important issue.”

Full remarks, as prepared for delivery:

Madam President, when I was appointed to the Senate, I made a promise to myself not to let this opportunity pass without helping to recognize the contribution made to this Nation by its government workers. This is why I began my weekly ``great Federal employee'' series last May.

In all my years working as a Federal employee, I have met so many wonderful individuals who have dedicated their careers to working for the American people. So many are deserving but will not make it onto the poster I bring to the Senate floor each week commemorating great Federal employees simply because there are so many of them.

Over the years, as I have witnessed countless acts of personal courage, devotion to country, and real sacrifice, I have also seen and heard such disheartening and baseless attacks against those who choose to serve.

The pending amendment is just the latest assault. It comes on the heels of a new myth being peddled on television, on talk radio, in print, and on this very floor--the allegation that somehow Federal employees are overpaid; that their salaries have been rising unfairly compared to those with similar jobs in the private sector; that we should freeze or cut their pay or lay them off; that we should make it nearly impossible to hire any new government worker at all.

Before I rebut these arguments piecemeal, I remind my colleagues and the American people what we are talking about. This is not an exercise in the abstract. There are concrete facts. There are names, faces, and real life stories of achievement and hard work.

Nearly 2 million wake up every day and go to work for the American people, for their neighbors, their friends and family, for folks they have never met or will never meet.

They do it for substantially less pay than the same job in the private sector and with considerably more at stake. As I have said before, there are no Wall Street bonuses, and there is rarely ever recognition for their hard work. For many, working as a Federal employee is a tough choice.

In his keynote address at the annual dinner on Monday honoring the winners of this year's Arthur S. Flemming Awards for public service, NIST physicist Dr. William Phillips--whom I honored as a great Federal employee this past December--told his audience about a colleague who decided to work for the Federal Government. This scientist had been working most of his early career in the private sector. At a certain point, he realized it was more important for him to make a difference and serve his country, so he went to work in a government lab.

He told Dr. Phillips that, to do so, he took a pay cut that was a factor of 10.

That is 10 times less pay. I am sure it was a difficult decision, but ultimately he made the choice to work for his country.

I met an appointee the other day who is taking a 95 percent pay cut. I have constantly been amazed by the number of highly skilled and highly experienced individuals willing to take 20, 40, 60 percent salary cuts to work in the Obama Administration. These political appointees join the career personnel, so many of who would also be making much more in the private sector.

Just look at some of those I have honored as great Federal employees this past year.

By the way, I do not pick the people at the top of the spectrum. When I honor a great Federal employee, it is at any level in the government. Anybody who does their job well should be honored. We have so many great Federal employees who operate at all levels of government that I try to honor them all.

I am hard pressed to think of any who would not be making a lot more in the private sector. Not only do we have brilliant physicists such as Dr. William Phillips who won a Nobel Prize. We also have those such as Brian Persons, the executive director of NAVSEA who has spent his career designing and maintaining our Navy's ships and who holds an engineering degree from Michigan State. Or Erica Williams, an enforcement attorney with the SEC with a degree from the University of Virginia Law School, who I am sure could be making a lot more if she worked for a Wall Street firm. Or Judge Timothy Rice, a Temple Law School graduate who could have chosen to work as an attorney in private practice but, instead, went to work for the Justice Department and on the Federal bench.

I am not saying that all Federal employees earn 10 times less than their private sector counterparts. I am not even saying all Federal employees earn less.

Still, those who claim that Federal employees are making more on average than private sector counterparts simply don't have all their facts straight. We know how these things happen. In this case, much of the data used to make these claims are from a USA Today study a few months ago, which analyzed findings from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The big problem with that study is that it is both highly selective of the job categories compared and it fails to take into account the demographics of our Federal workforce.

The number of employees in various private sector job categories dwarfs that of the Federal Government, skewing salary data lower for the private sector, where there are more minimum wage jobs. Also, a large number of Federal jobs require highly specialized skills and, as a result, employees are often older and more educated than the average worker in comparable private sector roles.

Many Americans do not realize that about 20 percent of Federal employees hold a master's or professional degree, compared to 13 percent in the private sector. Fifty-one percent of Federal employees have at least a bachelor's degree, while this is true for only 35 percent of the private sector workforce.

In the words of Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service which, by the way, is a nonpartisan organization this is ``not an apples-to-apples comparison.''

You cannot simply ask what the average salaries for budget analysts are in the private sector and for budget analysts in government. The same goes for librarians or statisticians or paralegals.

The occupational categories might be called by the same name, but the work is very different. There are different skill sets required, different types of experience necessary.

When actual job tasks are compared, few government jobs have exact equivalents in the private sector.

Contrary to what many have said, Federal workers' salaries are actually lower, not higher, than those in the private sector.

Indeed, the Federal Salary Council reported last October that Federal employees were making an average of over 26 percent--less--than those in the private sector doing comparable work. Moreover, this represents a widening of the private-public pay gap from the previous year, continuing a recent trend.

However, this line of attack continues from those who routinely disparage the role of government. Unfortunately, it has become all too common to criticize Washington by defaming the civilian employees who work across our government.

Federal employees continue to serve as a convenient scapegoat. That, essentially, is what this amendment does. It assigns blame and does not really address the budgetary problems we face.

It reminds me of an amendment proposed by one of my friends on the other side of the aisle when we were considering the health insurance reform bill. It would have mandated that ``for each new bureaucrat added to any department or agency for the purpose of implementing the provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the head of such department or agency shall ensure that the addition of such new bureaucrat is offset by a reduction of one existing bureaucrat at such department or agency.''

In effect, we would have to fire a Federal worker to hire one. This so-called ``bureaucrat offset'' amendment--using a word that has become, unfortunately, pejorative in our political discourse--was bad enough.

The Thune amendment, with its blanket pay freeze and hiring caps, takes this a step further, prohibiting any Federal agency from hiring a new employee until one retires.

At a moment when we are faced with a difficult choice about how to reduce our deficit and get our economy moving again, this amendment represents an easy cop-out.

All those who blame Federal employees for our Nation's problems or believe that cutting their salaries or capping their number will in any way solve those problems remain averse to making difficult decisions.

The cuts to the Federal workforce in the Thune amendment would only save the taxpayers a meager amount compared to what we need to save. Its provisions on the Federal workforce and the ongoing, gratuitous disparagement of America's public employees from many directions constitute a dangerous distraction from the very tough steps we as a nation must take.

The greatest challenges we face today--the gulf spill, two wars, carbon pollution, illegal immigration, market volatility--all of these will be tackled by hardworking Federal employees.

All of these challenges require a readiness on our part to make difficult choices. Scapegoating and playing the blame game won't get us anywhere.

Federal employees know firsthand about making tough choices. They do so every day. Many of the great Federal employees I have honored from this desk came to my attention because they faced difficult tasks, took risks, and achieved great accomplishments. Some of those I honored have served overseas in dangerous regions; one gave his life while working for USAID. One left a lucrative private sector job after September 11th to join the Justice Department as an anti-terror prosecutor. Others immigrated to this country from places like Afghanistan and Vietnam and became Federal employees because they wanted to give back to the country that took them in as refugees.

These stories go on and on. They are as diverse and numerous as this great country of ours.

Additionally, all of my honorees share with every other government employee the experience of making that initial decision to pursue government work hardly an easy one to make considering the sacrifices involved.

Ultimately, those who support Federal salary cuts and hiring caps mistakenly view our civil service as a cost. Rather, it is an important national resource with real benefits for all of us.

At the end of the day, I must remind my colleagues that it is our outstanding Federal employees who will carry out the programs we pass everyday in this Chamber. We will continue to count on the Federal workforce to keep our skies safe for travel, our troops provisioned and veterans cared for, our schools held to high standards, and our homeland secure.

Woodrow Wilson, as a young political scientist during the civil service reform debates of the 1880s, advocated for a system of public administration because he believed that the conditions of modernity require it in order for a democratic state to function at its best.

Indeed, our civil service has developed into one uniquely suited to our needs and incorporating America's best constitutional traditions. We have a Federal workforce of which we can be proud.

Federal employees play a critical role in our national life and, through their work, exemplify so many of our Nation's great values. These include exemplary citizenship; industriousness; a willingness to take risks; perseverance; modesty; and intellect.

Contrary to popular myth, most Federal employees work outside of Washington. In fact, no State--and I include the District of Columbia--no State is home to more than 8.5 percent of the total Federal workforce. Our government employees work in communities large and small, spread out from coast to coast and overseas.

One of the challenges we face is a Federal retirement boom. As the baby boomers get older, the Office of Personnel Management has estimated that one-fifth of the Federal workforce will retire by 2014. This comes at the same time that more new hires are needed in mission-critical jobs dealing with public health, national security, transportation safety, financial regulation, and many other important areas.

Now is not the time to talk about laying off Federal workers or freezing their pay. We should be talking about how to invest in recruiting the next generation of Federal employees.

The scapegoating and baseless attacks against Federal workers only serve to demoralize those who are on the front lines of confronting our national challenges. It also discourages talented young Americans from making that difficult choice whether to start a career in service to their country.

Let me reiterate. Federal employees make less than those in the private sector, not more. They represent some of our very best and brightest, a dedicated and hard-working group of Americans across this country. We need to recruit a new generation of government workers to help us tackle great challenges, and unfairly labeling Federal employees as a problem fails to realize their important role in finding so many solutions to the very difficult problems we face. The pending amendment's pay freeze and hiring restrictions will do almost nothing to reduce our deficit; rather, its effect on our government's ability to address serious issues will be disastrous.

For those looking to shift the blame for our troubles and who have their sights on America's Federal employees, I suggest look elsewhere.

For those who want easy, let's-deal-with-this-later answers and are looking for a convenient distraction, I say look elsewhere.

For those who support this amendment, for those who habitually shy away from making the tough choices we in this Chamber need to make, I say, though, look no further than the public employees you so casually fault.

They know how to make tough choices.

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