Washington Post Pushes Sky-is-Falling Act on Sequester

In late August, The Washington Post published a lengthy article about the high number of retiring federal employees. The article’s not-so-subtle undertone strongly indicated America would be worse off as employees continue to retire at high rates given the realities of the Budget Control Act, the “graying” of the federal work force, and the benefits of early retirement.

As is typical, this assessment is wrong, for at least two reasons:

First, cost. The Post cites many employees and former public servants who claim their pay has been impacted significantly in recent years. However, Heritage Foundation labor expert James Sherk told Tea Party Patriots that federal civilian employees make 30% more than their private-sector equivalents earn. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the difference at 16%, but either way, it is clear federal employees fare far better than their private sector counterparts.

Sherk directed Tea Party Patriots to Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) data showing that the three-year federal employee pay freeze only stopped cost of living adjustments. Performance bonuses and other monetary increases continued to flow, and only in 2012 did overall federal employee compensation go down. Sherk claims the reduction is due to attrition in senior employee retirements, not actual reductions in pay.

More importantly, the Post tries to convince its readers that fewer federal employees is bad for the country. In an e-mail, Sherk explained this is incorrecet:

The sequester has had little effect on the quality of federal services. The public has barely noticed the sequester took effect. So modest reductions in federal employment will not disrupt public services.

This last point might be somewhat surprising to big spenders in Washington, since the number of federal employees has fallen in the last 40 years. However, the number of employees is only a small part of the larger picture, which includes employee necessity and cost.

The only area of legitimate concern in the Post’s article is air traffic controllers. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) instituted $600 million in cuts due to sequestration, and has blamed the current shortfall on both the sequester and the graying of employees. The sequestration point is, naturally, absurd, as Senator Coburn (R-OK) pointed out in March.

According to a veteran air traffic controller, who asked to remain anonymous, the impacts of aging and the FAA’s implementation of sequestration may be felt for years:

The staffing numbers thrown around by the media and politicians don’t reflect the realities of air traffic controllers. For example, we have a mandatory retirement age of 56, and have to be hired before the age of 31 – which means the industry has had a shortage of controllers since 2006, which is when the controllers hired in 1981 retired.

There was a hiring boom from 2005 to 2010 to compensate for the glut of retirees, but with sequestration the FAA chose to shut down the academy that trains new hires. This is an issue for a variety of reasons, including the simple fact that training and qualifying take three years, and the academy closure slows the ability to replace retirees. Furthermore, we lose a lot of potential hires who, due to the waiting period for the school to open back up, age out of the hiring pool. Therefore, we are actively losing veteran controllers due to the delays with the academy.

As the sequester continues, expect to see more articles like this in big outlets like The Washington Post that not-so-subtly indicate the country is facing some sort of sequestration-induced crisis. Know, however, that the full story doesn’t sell the big spending agenda, including the fact that federal civilian employee compensation has grown dramatically in recent years.

It’s a deal millions of unemployed and underemployed Americans would jump at.