Why are civilian Federal workers getting the shaft?

The two most effective ways to control federal spending: 1) Rescind the “Bush tax holiday” for the wealthy; restore tax rates for the wealthy to Clinton levels. 2) Bring the troops home from Iraq, Afghanistan as soon as possible. Don’t let Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats fool you; everything else is “window dressing.”

By all accounts, President Barack Obama had a very successful December, 2010 with the Lame Duck Congress. He did some tricky negotiating with both Republicans and some progressive Democrats and considerable legislation was passed, including a comprehensive act on taxes, unemployment benefits, and more.

However, one of the criticisms of President Obama has been that his negotiating style seems to frequently include the unique tactic of finding items that Republicans might like and “giving them” to the GOP before the Republicans even ask for them.  That’s what happened with the estate tax and with the freeze on civilian workers’ pay.

The freeze on civilian pay is one of those provisions that hits home for the two million federal civilian workers. Most of these workers make far less money than their counterparts in the private work force. Most federal workers are willing to sacrifice when it is fair, but it is difficult to understand a civil-service pay freeze when tax breaks for the wealthy continue.

Since the New Deal, labor unions have been the primary advocates for workers. However, union membership has decreased dramatically since business executives and shareholders discovered out-sourcing. But it’s difficult to out-source government and the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) is strong enough to present the American people with the logical objections to the pay freeze.

Recently, the leadership of AFGE sent a letter to its members outlining how the pay freeze hurts the workers far more than it addresses our deficit. National President John Gage points out  that employee pay is only a small fraction of federal expenses; even cutting the payroll in half [for 2 million workers) would reduce total spending less that 3%.

Is there a disconnect between the idea of imposing a freeze on federal civilian workers while letting Wall Street moguls make as much money in salaries and bonuses as they did prior to the “Collapse of 2008?”  Here might be an explanation as to why the federal workers take it on the chin and Wall Street gamblers don’t.

In 1939, Congress passed the Hatch Act, whose main provision was to prohibit federal employees from engaging in partisan political activity. This act is not without merit; the idea was to keep federal employees from using the power of their offices to influence how people vote. Furthermore, civil service workers are employees of the United States government; not of any particular president.  It makes sense to limit their focus to serving the American people rather than a particular president.

However, the downside of the Hatch Act is that two million individuals who have a deep stake in the quality of our government and the quality of life in the United States are forbidden from fully participating in the process of selecting our leaders. It is somewhat akin to taxation without representation; the employees must live with the consequences of their president’s actions, but they have less say in choosing their president than their friends who work in the private sector.

At the same time, wealthy individuals and now corporations can give almost unlimited amounts to candidates of their choice.

There is an interesting side note here. In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the “Citizens United” case that corporations had the same rights as individuals and thus could contribute to political campaigns as individuals do. The operative clause to the Court was “freedom of speech” as enumerated in the First Amendment to our Constitution.

But twice before, the Court said that federal employees were not entitled to the same free speech as corporations. In both 1947 and 1974, the Supreme Court ruled that the Hatch Act was not a violation of free speech and thus it was constitutional.

Even if we accepted the combined reasoning of the Supreme Court in 1947, 1974, and 2010 that corporations are entitled to virtually unlimited free speech but civil servants are not, there would be somewhat of a sour taste about who is entitled to what rights. Once again it would be the wealthy and the powerful that have fundamental rights that government workers, many of whom live paycheck to paycheck, do not have.

Each of the cases involves questions about the role of money in politics. There appears to be an inconsistency in the Court’s rulings. But to whom can you appeal the rulings of the Supreme Court?

If you are a federal employee who learned about an unexpected pay freeze, you may not be thinking about the esoteric arguments about free speech and campaign finance. But when one of the reasons why you decided to enter the civil service was a fair and progressive pay scale,  and when you are “frozen” while others aren’t, you have to wonder why and feel the frustration as expressed by John Gage, president of the union.

We know this: Wall Street financiers gave huge sums to the Obama campaign in 2008 and they will do so again in 2012. Not so with civil service workers. President Obama has shown more comfort and skill of late in utilizing the tools of power. The burden that our civil servants are now bearing is with us through 2012. Hopefully the president will be more careful in the future to not further burden those who can bear it least.