President Obama's proposed pay freeze for federal workers makes sense for reining in government salaries, for trimming deficits, and for reaching out to the GOP.
Senate Republicans called for a freeze in federal pay last summer, but lost the argument. At the time, the president was proposing a 1.4 percent pay raise for federal employees in 2011.
But that was before Democrats were routed at the polls in the midterm elections. Voters said one of their concerns was soaring government deficits.
To his credit, Obama's proposed two-year freeze on nonmilitary salaries shows a willingness to work with the incoming Republican majority in the House. In doing so, however, the president has angered public-employee unions, which make up a key part of his political base.
Those union leaders ought to take an honest look at the whopping gains federal employees have made in recent years. Since 2000, the average federal salary rose 33 percent faster than inflation.
A USA Today analysis found that federal compensation in the last decade grew 36.9 percent after being adjusted for inflation, while for private workers it rose only 8.8 percent.
In 2009, federal civil servants earned average pay and benefits of $123,049. Employees in the private sector made $61,051 in total compensation.
Since Obama took office, the number of federal workers earning $150,000 or more per year has doubled. The Defense Department has nearly 1,000 civilian employees earning $170,000 or more. In 2005, there were nine.
The total number of federal employees has risen sharply, too - by 17 percent since 2007. Excluding postal workers and the military, there are now about two million full-time federal employees. (As of 2007, the last year for which figures are available, there were about 66,000 civilian federal workers in Pennsylvania and 29,000 in New Jersey.)
At a time when unemployment is high and many workers in private industry are taking pay cuts, a two-year freeze for well-compensated federal employees is a modest move. The president's proposal wouldn't even affect scheduled step increases or bonuses.
State governments should follow suit. Gov.-elect Tom Corbett said he'll give his nearly $3,000 pay raise to charities. Auditor General Jack Wagner plans to give back his pay raise, and said legislators would save taxpayers $2.7 million next year by rejecting their scheduled cost-of-living increases.
When it comes to deficit reduction, the proposed federal pay freeze is more symbolic than substantive. The U.S. government would save $5 billion over two years. It would save $28 billion over five years, due to future salary increases' starting from a lower point.
But cutting deficits will require sacrifices across a broad range of federal spending, and federal employees' pay should be included in that equation.
Congress must approve the wage freeze. Lawmakers have already rejected their own $1,600 cost-of-living increases for 2011 - the second year in a row they've done so. Of course, in 2008 and 2009, they received raises of $4,100 and $4,700, respectively. Base pay for members of Congress is $174,000.
Obama has put on the table a proposal that Republican lawmakers wanted. Now the ball's in their court. If they don't reciprocate, the public should well remember the president's overture.