We are learning a lot about a changing America, and a changing political landscape, from watching the ongoing story in Wisconsin about legislation that would affect collective bargaining rules for public employees. The story began with public employee unions flexing their muscle. They prevailed upon their members — many of whom apparently called in “sick” — to flood the state capitol in protest. They also prevailed upon Democratic state senators to flee the state and bring the legislative process to a halt due to lack of a quorum.
It is not surprising that teachers and public employees would turn out to protest; their pay and benefits will be directly affected by the outcome. What I think is extraordinary, however, is that thousands of citizens whose interests are not directly affected were motivated to spend a Saturday outside, advocating in support of the budget-cutting efforts of Wisconsin’s governor. It says a lot about the deep level of alarm about out-of-control spending that thousands of people would spend their precious weekend hours at a counter-protest. Wisconsin’s governor, and his Republican allies in the state legislature, must have been encouraged by the strong show of support — which probably is the tip of a much larger iceberg.
It also says something that thousands of people could turn out to support competing sides of a hotly debated issue without violence. The teachers, public employees, and citizens who went to the state capitol to exercise their rights to free speech and assembly look a lot more adult than the Wisconsin Democratic Senators who turned tail and ran out of state rather than participate in the political process as they were elected to do.
The key issue at present is public employee unions. New Governor Scott Walker and Republican legislators want to change the collective bargaining rights of most public employees and require those employees to pay half of their pension costs and 12.8 percent of their health care costs. Wisconsin is facing significant budget shortfalls, and the measures are expected to save $300 million during the next two-year budget cycle. Public employees, their unions, and Democrats in the Wisconsin legislature adamantly oppose these efforts. Public employees have flooded the Wisconsin capitol building to protest; many were teachers who called in “sick” to participate. Meanwhile, stout-hearted Democratic state senators boarded a bus and fled Wisconsin so they would be beyond the jurisdiction of the Senate Sergeant at Arms. The Democratic senators who skedaddled have been found at a Best Western resort in Rockford, Illinois.
It tells you a lot about the power of public employee unions in the Democratic party that they can prevail upon elected officials to engage in such a petulant and embarrassing stunt. And it tells you even more about the sweet deal that public employees must have in the Badger State if paying only half of their pension costs and less than 13 percent of their health care costs causes them to prevail upon their Democratic allies to go to the mattresses. Most private sector workers I know would be thrilled to have their employers paying half of their pension contributions and 87 percent of health care costs. And who do you suppose is paying for the sumptuous lodging at the Rockford Best Western?
I’m not sure that debating the compensation levels of federal employees versus private sector employees is really all that meaningful. To me, the more pertinent question deals with productivity and performance. Speaking as someone who has worked (twice) in the federal government and also in the private sector, I am convinced that private sector workers must work harder, be more productive, and maintain a higher level of performance. If you are a salesman, you have to sell up to your quota if you want to keep your job. If you are a mechanic who botches a few repair jobs, you will find yourself out on the street.
How many federal employees get fired for poor performance? Not as many who should be, no doubt, because the process of firing federal workers is incredibly difficult and time-consuming. The result is that crummy workers keep their jobs, and the government hires additional employees to do what the poor employees can’t, or won’t, do. The lack of a meaningful threat of discharge inevitably results in a bloated workforce. The real answer to cutting the federal payroll is not to freeze salaries, but to get rid of the absurd limitations on discharging bad employees and require federal employees to meet the same meaningful productivity and performance standards that are applied to private sector workers.
Are federal government employees overpaid in comparison to their private industry counterparts? A recent Wall Street Journal says the answer to that question is “yes,” and that federal workers get a significant premium in pay and benefits — as well as the job security that comes from working for an entity that doesn’t lay people off due to foreign competition or falling sales. Federal officials have argued that the pay discrepancy is due to federal workers having more education and experience, but those differences don’t account for the full amount of the difference.
Anyone who has ever worked for the federal government knows precisely why working for the government can be an attractive option. I worked for the federal government on two occasions — as a congressional staffer in the early ’80s and as a judicial clerk in 1985-86 — and each time I received competitive pay, extraordinary benefits, and incredibly flexible working hours. In particular, the federal employees health plan was notably better than private plans. You didn’t pay anything, and it covered everything — even dental and glasses!
I’m not saying we should be cheapskates with our federal employees, but I don’t think we need to pay them over market, either. Our economy would be much better off if the “best and brightest” eschewed government service, took some risks, formed their own companies, or assisted existing American companies in becoming more competitive, developing new products and services, and creating new jobs.