Whatever budget battle's outcome, lawmakers themselves unaffected
By JOYCE TSAI | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 25, 2013
WASHINGTON — Sequestration’s across-the-board assault on hundreds of thousands of government workers is set to hit Friday, but some will be spared, including active-duty troops and Defense Department civilians working in combat zones.
Add to that short list of protected workers: congressional lawmakers, who could put a stop to it all.
“The whole thing is dripping with irony and hypocrisy,” especially if you consider that they’re the ones who created this problem in the first place — and now seem resigned to letting it happen, said David Williams, president of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, a nonpartisan government watchdog group in Alexandria, Va.
On one side, nearly 800,000 civilian defense employees are bracing for furloughs that would force them to stay home one day each week beginning in April, suffering a 20 percent bite out of their paychecks — as well as countless other civilian workers in a broad swathe of government agencies, including Border Patrol agents, emergency workers, first responders and air traffic and security agents, who face reduced workdays and pay.
On the other side, “you have members of Congress, with a $174,000 base salary, which is $285,000 when you take into account their health care and pensions,” who are insulated from the sequester, he said. “They are very well paid for what they do — and they haven’t been doing a lot.
“They’ve been punting everything six months and a year down the road, and then they say, ‘How do we get out of this mess?’ Well, you created that mess,” he said. And the blame never seems to end. “Guess what?,” Williams said. “Everybody’s at fault.”
Many Americans blame Congress for creating the “imaginary” fiscal crisis and for a pattern of partisan rigidity that has driven the nation to the brink of an economic crisis. A recent Gallup poll found that the approval rating for Congress is at 15 percent, while President Barack Obama’s is at 51 percent, one of his highest ratings in more than three years.
Pete Sepp, executive vice president of the National Taxpayers Union in Alexandria, Va., called it “almost double hypocritical.” Lawmakers “won’t face up to the necessary, major financial consequences” of out-of-control government spending or “give the necessary legislative guidance on where the budget priorities could be made,” Sepp said. However, they still get their payday while leaving the nation in political deadlock.
Both taxpayer watchdog groups say that sequester-level spending reductions in government are achievable — and necessary to solve the nation’s debt problem.
“But the sequester itself is not the ideal way to do that,” Sepp said of the “meat-ax” approach to government spending reductions. “Congress should have a comprehensive evaluation of strategy and its funding priorities.”
A statement by the American Federation of Governmental Employees, the largest federal employee union — which represents 670,000 workers, including many DOD employees — also took note of the stark contrast between Congress and those workers who would bear sequestration’s brunt.
“An employee in the middle of the pay scale, earning about $50,000 a year, takes home between $500 and $600 a week after subtracting health insurance, retirement and taxes,” it notes. “Taking away one day’s pay every week could mean the difference between covering the mortgage and putting food on the table.
“These employees aren’t some fat cat bureaucrats in a plush Washington office,” it adds. “They are the firefighters who safeguard our bases, the health care professionals who treat injured soldiers in military hospitals, the mechanics who repair our tanks and planes, the logistics personnel who ensure supplies make it to our troops, the acquisition experts who prevent big defense contractors from ripping off taxpayers.”
Tim Kauffman, an AFGW spokesman, called out the Defense Department’s top brass for not scrutinizing budgets more thoroughly in an effort to minimize civilian furloughs, which will generate less than $5 billion in savings out of the $42 billion that the Pentagon must cut.
Furloughs will harm so many employees — about 80 percent of whom who work outside of the Washington, D.C., area — and weaken a fragile economic recovery, potentially erasing the nation’s modest employment gains.
Kauffman suggested that lawmakers could show they recognize the pain they would subject many middle-class federal workers to by taking their own self-imposed pay cut of 20 percent and giving it to charity, for example.
Congress should be asked to do more to sacrifice, Williams said, just as it is asking the rest of the federal workforce and the nation to sacrifice. Such a gesture is long overdue, he said.
“During the economic downturn, many felt that Congress needed to tighten their belts, but Congress never tightened their belts,” he said. “They never even took a symbolic pay cut, to say, ‘We see your pain, we know a lot of people are losing their jobs — and maybe it’s time we take a pay cut and we get reprimanded for poor performance.”
Some legislators have made nods in that direction — but they might end up being symbolic. The recent No Budget, No Pay Act was designed to stop congressional members from getting paid if both chambers, particularly the Senate, couldn’t pass a budget. But it’s legislation “without teeth,” many say, because the 27th Amendment to the Constitution forbids Congress from changing its own pay during a current term, according to the National Constitutional Center in Philadelphia. The same amendment is also why legislators are shielded from sequestration.
“I don’t think the public will pay a whole lot of attention” to “No Budget, No Pay,” said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst for the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “And if sequestration hits and the economy takes a dive, they’ll be looking for someone to blame.”