No U.S. president of the modern era ever got in trouble with voters by speaking ill of civil servants. At least since Ronald Reagan, it's been far easier (and better politics) to portray the federal work force as lazy, uncaring, overpaid, anti-business and a waste of money.
So in that context it's really no surprise that President Barack Obama chose to throw about 1.9 civilian federal employees under the proverbial Metrobus this week by embracing a two-year salary freeze even before his fiscal commission reports its budget-balancing recommendations Friday.
Never mind that federal employees are already slated to take what amounts to a pay cut — a decrease in transit subsidies and a huge increase in health insurance premiums that kicks in next year. 'Tis the season for symbolic gestures, and the White House made a political calculation that it's better to offer up such symbolism before his Republican critics do.
But make no mistake, it's not much more than symbolism. The proposed freeze would save the country all of $2 billion next year. With the federal government facing a deficit 500 times that much, $2 billion is sofa cushion change. The Pentagon probably spends more than that on ink-jet cartridges.
The real problem with Mr. Obama's approach is not that all belts will have to be tightened to reduce the federal deficit but that he's chosen to tighten a particularly inconsequential one first. It perpetuates the misimpression shared by too many Americans that federal workers are the chief consumers of their tax dollars.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The government's biggest expenditures are on national defense and the checks made out to retirees and health care providers under the mantle of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Collectively, that represents more than 60 percent of the budget.
But cutting those programs is hard. Politicians get kicked out of office for even suggesting reductions in Social Security benefits. And the last administration decided that military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan were best financed with borrowed money.
If the president is looking for a blueprint for cutting spending, he'd be better off looking to states like Maryland, where government workers have had to sacrifice in recent years — but only as part of broader budget cutting. Gov. Martin O'Malley has furloughed workers, but that choice came with higher taxes and reductions to virtually every government function.
Now, Washington is caught up debating how far to extend the expiring tax cuts of George W. Bush. It's a choice between greatly expanding the federal deficit or grossly expanding it. Either way, there's a lot more than $2 billion at stake.
Clearly, some contraction of the federal work force is due, particularly if it can make government more efficient and effective. As much as Maryland's economy relies to some degree on federal spending and is home to many thousands of federal workers, such parochial concerns are secondary to the national interest of reducing the deficit.
But if there's one thing we know in Maryland, it's the pride and accomplishments of federal civilian employees who serve such vital functions as protecting our air and water, preserving our nation's parks, ensuring food safety, prosecuting criminals and on and on. Generally, they earn less in salary than their private sector counterparts and don't deserve to be vilified.
If these honorable men and women must take a pay cut, Mr. President, please let it not be as mere symbolism and political theater but as part of a far more comprehensive approach to bringing the federal budget in balance. They deserve that — just as all Americans deserve an honest assessment of where their tax dollars go.