Issa: Pay debate is subset of larger challenges

Thursday - 4/14/2011, 7:20am EDT

WFED's Jason Miller

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By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

Congressman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) admitted that Republicans can sound evil when it comes to the debate about whether federal employees are overpaid.

And the Chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee knows the back-and-forth between Republicans and Democrats, between his committee and the administration over whether feds' compensation is too high, too low or just right is overshadowing the bigger issue.

"Good workers need to be paid and they need to be paid comparative value to the private sector," Issa said Wednesday at an event in Washington sponsored by the Association of Government Accountants. "Good workers probably need to have greater security than you probably have in the private sector. However we need to reform the ability not based on political whims, but the ability based on performance to shed workers who are inappropriate in their behavior or whose jobs are no longer needed."

He added agencies should have retraining and job changing like many large companies offer. And that ability to change the workforce as needed is the issue his committee is focusing on.

"All I want to do is bring the kind of professionalism to various parts of the federal workforce that lets the federal workforce be regarded with as much pride as the best corporate American workforce," he said. "To do that, you have to make some careful changes, and some of it will affect job pay. But it will not affect job pay for everyone. It's going to be discriminating."

But over the first three months of the Republicans controlling the House, the legislation trying to change the federal workforce, and the hearings exploring federal pay are abundant.

According to a Federal News Radio analysis of the bills introduced in the 112th Congress, seven would adversely affect the federal workforce, while six would benefit employees.

Issa's committee Wednesday passed three more bills, including the Federal Employee Tax Accountability Act of 2011 (H.R. 828), which makes an individual who has a seriously delinquent tax debt ineligible to be appointed, or to continue serving, as a federal employee.

The committee also held its second hearing on federal benefits Wednesday. The subcommittee on the Federal Workforce, U.S. Postal Service and Labor Policy looked at whether the Federal Employees' Compensation Act is a fair approach.

The hearing looked at the legislative reforms to the federal worker's compensation program.

The subcommittee held another hearing in March about whether feds are overpaid.

Issa said the pay issues is a subset of the problems with how agencies hire, promote, reward and fire employees.

"Don't we have an ability to figure out cost-benefit, comparative worth and price jobs appropriately?" he asked. "The answer is, no we don't."

Not having those tools, Issa says, leads to a federal workforce where some are overpaid, some are underpaid and some are getting paid even though they shouldn't be on the payroll at all.

"Clearly, getting the right pay for the right motivation for the right worker should be the goal of the federal government," he said. "Everyone on my committee, on both sides of the aisle, would agree with that. One of the problems is you do end up with the legacy questions. Is the pay and benefits package right and can it be amended? If it's amended, should those amendments be slow and pragmatic?"

He said any federal worker can go to the private sector anytime they want so pay is important, especially to retain the good workers and keep them motivated.

But there also is a need to right size the workforce.

Issa said one example of the change that needs to happen is in the Postal Service.

"The Postal Service's own statement is it has 175,000 more workers than it will need and attrition will not take care of it," he said. "The Postal Service has two 98-year-old workers still on full pay. They don't have a disability elimination [process] and they are not willing to say when you are over 65 and have over 20 years, we will just retire you."

Additionally, the government doesn't do a good job performing the cost-benefit analysis for bringing work back into the government or sending it out to contractors.

"That is more where our committee is focused on," Issa said. "Yes, you have to arrive at the competitive value between private sector and public sector but you do it for a lot of reasons including should we be doing things in house that we currently are doing out of house and the other way around."