With deficit reduction one of the top priorities of Republican leaders in the new Congress, the debate over where to cut government spending is likely to get heated in the coming months. One area where GOP leaders are already pointing is the federal workforce, which some Republicans believe is too big and overpaid.
The nation's 2 million federal workers are a tempting target for Republican deficit cutters, including the man likely to be the House majority leader in the next Congress, Eric Cantor.
"The federal bureaucracy has grown at a pace unseen, certainly, in the private sector," he said on CNN the morning after voters swept his party into power. "We've seen pay scales for federal employees grow nearly double in some cases to those market rates. We've got to bring those down to a level which reflects the marketplace today. That will save billions of dollars as well."
How many billions of dollars could be cut from the budget if federal salaries were capped or cut? According to the Heritage Foundation, taxpayers would save $47 billion if federal workers were paid at the same rate as private sector employees.
James Sherk, a researcher with Heritage, says the federal pay system is badly broken.
"On average, the government is paying a typical employee 30 to 40 percent more in total benefits -- both wages and salaries -- than a similarly educated and skilled private sector would receive," he says. "But ... there are, in fact, some federal employees who are getting underpaid because the federal pay system doesn't reward experience or hard work -- it's basically entirely seniority-based."
But not everyone agrees with the Republicans' numbers on federal wages. The government itself, in a recent report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, said federal workers actually make about 22 percent less than their private sector counterparts.
It's widely accepted by both sides that the government's highest-paid employees -- government prosecutors, Veterans Affairs doctors and researchers -- do earn much less working for Uncle Sam than they would be likely to in the private sector.
Republican Jason Chaffetz of Utah may have a big say about what Republicans in Congress do about federal salaries this year. He is now the top Republican on the subcommittee with oversight of the federal workforce and could wind up as chairman of the panel. Chaffetz says private employers have tightened their belts, and it's time for the federal government to do the same.
"We're going to have to figure out how to do more with less, and a significant portion of our budget is the federal payroll," he says. "So, as a Republican, I want to live up to the obligation made in the Pledge to America, and that is to freeze the hiring and cap federal pay."
But John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest union for government workers, says most government workers are not getting rich.
"Some of these wages -- I mean, people really have to look at it," Gage says. "You know, a border patrol agent makes $34,000; meat and poultry inspectors, $31,000; VA nursing assistant in Chicago, $27,000. So there's really a lot of misinformation. But going after federal pay is more ideological rather than a fiscal solution."
Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University who specializes in the federal workforce, says cutting federal salaries or jobs has been tried before. It doesn't usually save much, he says, and may end up costing taxpayers even more.
"Largely because the jobs migrate to contractors or the jobs are eventually filled in other ways," he says. "It's not a way to save money. It is a way, if done well, to improve government performance. But that may involve significant injections of new money for things like better technology, better training and so forth."
Light notes that there are already three times as many government contractors as there are direct employees.
The chairman of the federal deficit commission, meanwhile, added more fuel to the fire Wednesday, suggesting a three-year freeze on federal salaries and a 10 percent cut in the number of federal workers.