President Barack Obama's decision to seek a two-year wage freeze for civilian federal workers is more than justified. In fact, it's a long-overdue recognition of economic reality that has been avoided only due to the federal government's ability to fill budgetary holes with borrowed money. In the world where budgets have to balance, the private sector eliminated 8 million jobs during the recession, and state and local governments significantly reduced their work forces. Federal workers cannot be insulated from this pain. But to get the deficit under control, more spending cuts and new revenue will be required. This is just the start of the broader sacrifices to come.
While a wage freeze is a politically difficult step for the president and his fellow Democrats, who rely heavily on public sector and civil servant support, it is an important symbolic gesture if not a hugely tangible one. The move would affect 2.1 million federal civilian employees who wouldn't see a planned 1.4 percent pay raise in 2011 or a pay raise in 2012. The savings is estimated at $5 billion over two fiscal years and $60 billion over 10 years, which sounds significant until you consider that the deficit has exceeded $1 trillion over the past two years. Still, it answers some critics who claim that federal employees have been unfairly protected from today's economic challenges.
In many ways the Obama administration has been too slow to acknowledge that American workers are being called on to work harder for less. In Florida, state workers have endured a pay freeze for four years due to budgetary constraints. Pay freezes or furloughs of various degrees for nonunion county and city employees have occurred throughout the Tampa Bay region, in addition to a reduction in the work force. There is no reason federal employees should be held harmless. As with any other enterprise, when government revenues decline, payrolls need to adjust.
But it's not just executive branch workers who should shoulder the brunt. Wage freezes should also extend to the legislative and judicial branches. Lawmakers who are serious about cutting spending can't just wave their scissors at the executive branch.
While freezing pay for the federal civilian work force won't solve the fiscal mess, it is a start to the difficult decisionmaking to come. There will be many more difficult, unpopular choices for a country used to freely spending while cutting taxes. Those discussions will likely dominate the news this week as the president's deficit commission unveils its recommendations and Congress considers the extension of the Bush-era tax cuts. But the wage freeze is a responsible step, and a welcome one.