GOP Assault on Federal Pay Puts Obama in Politically Difficult Position

President Obama is stuck between a rock and a hard place, as newly empowered House Republicans unleash a torrent of proposals to shrink the size of government and following a series of reports that show federal workers increasing in numbers and salary.

Obama may have to choose between satisfying his base or placating independents who moved overwhelming into the Republican camp in the midterm elections two weeks ago based in part on their frustration over the growth of government in the past two years.

While slashing the government will be a top priority for Republicans in the next Congress, 60 percent of the federal workforce is represented by the labor unions that helped sweep the president into power two years ago.

"The calculation he has to make is how much he wants to bring that swing vote back," said Matrick Masters, a national labor expert and a professor of business and political science at Wayne State University.

"One of the ways is to go after government issues. The calculation he's going to make is how much damage it's going to do to the base," Masters told "He's got to realize he's got a difficult situation."

Already a flurry of proposals have been offered to slash spending on government functionaries.

Speaker-in-waiting John Boehner has called for a freeze in hiring and pay raises. Incoming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said his federal payroll plan could save taxpayers $35 billion.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the top Republican on the subcommittee with oversight of the federal workforce who is likely to become the panel's next chairman, wants a 10 percent across-the-board pay cut.

Chaffetz told on Tuesday that the federal payroll has grown by an additional 141,000 federal workers -- not counting Census employees, postal workers and uniformed members of the military -- since Obama took office. The president wants to hire 125,000 more workers.

Including compensation, the current cost of the federal workforce is $447 billion, he said.

"Somehow, some way, we're going to have to learn how to survive on just $400 billion," he said, adding that his proposal would give each agency and department discretion in how to reach a 10 percent reduction.

Even the chairman of Obama's bipartisan federal deficit commission has recommended a three-year freeze on federal salaries and a 10 percent cut in the number of federal workers as part of a draft report that some lawmakers say is dead on arrival.

But the proposals run counter to Obama's plan to give a 1.4 percent across-the-board pay raise to 2.1 million federal workers next fiscal year.

A USA Today analysis last week showed that the number of federal workers earning $150,000 or more per year has soared tenfold in the past five years and doubled since Obama took office.

But the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest union for federal employees and a staunch supporter of the president, rejects the notion that federal workers make more than their private-sector counterparts.

"There has been a concerted campaign by corporate-influenced groups and others to introduce the dangerous lie that federal employees are 'overpaid' relative to their private sector counterparts," union president John Gage said in a written statement.

Gage cited statistics from the Labor Bureau that showed federal salaries lag behind those in the private sector for almost all jobs in almost all locations throughout the U.S.

And AFGE spokeswoman Christine Erling said AFGE "vigorously opposes any efforts to freeze federal hiring and cut federal employees' pay."

"We have made and will continue to make our opposition to these types of punitive proposals known to the Obama administration as well as to the Congress," Erling said in an e-mail to

Supporters of federal pay rates note that the highest paid federal workers, such as doctors, lawyers and nuclear engineers, are earning well below market price. But the Heritage Foundation has estimated that taxpayers would save $47 billion if federal workers were paid at the same rate as private sector employees.

The White House did not respond to an e-mail seeking an interview, but unions, which represent more than 600,000 federal employees and total about 60 percent of the government workforce, put Obama in a politically difficult position if he wanted to seek a compromise with Republicans on the issue.

Labor was critical in mobilizing voters and getting them to cast ballots for Obama in 2008 but turnout dropped in the 2010 midterm in part because many union workers didn't see Obama go to bat for their initiatives, Masters said.

"I don't think those memories are lost upon him," he said. "He will need the support of labor in 2012."

Masters said that Obama will be under "intense" pressure to freeze hiring and pay in the federal workforce.

"It's a relatively easy thing to do -- a stroke of the pen and say, I'm going to freeze hiring, cap pay, and everybody is going to say, hip hip hooray -- jump for joy and not think about what it means," he said.

But, he suggested, Obama may just want to try to explain why he opposes a hiring freeze.

"What are you going to do if you have 1,000 air traffic controllers retire tomorrow morning? What are you going to do? But you don't want planes to be delayed. What's the economic consequence of that?" he asked by way of example. "It's going to have some impact."