Are public sector employees the Democrats’ achilles heel?

The debt is shaping up as a major issue in the 2010 elections and beyond. Republicans have, of course, been talking about it ever since the debate over the stimulus bill in early 2009. And the issue has caught on to the point that President Obama felt compelled to establish a high profile commission to make recommendations about how to deal with the debt.
By setting up the commission, Obama hopes to show that he and other Democrats are serious about the debt problem. He also expects the commission to provide him cover to push for his debt-reducing agenda, including perhaps some sort of a national sales tax and the slashing of social security payments to the relatively well-to-do.
But John Steele Gordon points to an issue through which Republicans can help ensure that the debt remains an Achilles heel for Dems — public employee compensation:

Across the country, public employees earned, on average, $39.66 an hour. The private sector? The average was $27.42. In other words, public employees earn 44 percent more.

As with any winning political issue, anecdotal evidence brings these statistics to life:

[In San Francisco] a third of the city work force makes more than $100,000 each. The retired deputy police chief earned $516,118 in his last year, thanks to saved up vacation days, sick leave, overtime, etc. It is, of course, the last year’s compensation that largely determines the size of the pension public employees get.

The Democrats can’t walk away from the public employee unions who negotiated these arrangements because they are beholden to them. Moreover, Dems’ hands-on complicity can’t be denied. As Gordon reminds us, “one-third of the so-called stimulus money went to state and local governments to avoid layoffs of public employees.” Under these circumstances, Republicans have every right to push this issue and to take advantage of the resentment many Americans rightly feel about inflated compensation in the public sector at a time when governments at all levels are so financially strapped.
The stimulus package aside, U.S. Senate and House members don’t control how state and local governments compensate their employees. But the salaries and benefits paid to federal government employees are hardly invulnerable to attack. Moreover, Gordon suggests that Republican congressional candidates can argue for a revision of the rules for collective bargaining in the public sector, rules that were written in 1935 when there were virtually no unionized public employees.
The notion may slowly be taking hold that all sectors and interests may have to sacrifice if the U.S. is ever to get back on a sound financial footing. But the sector/interest that arguably should be called on to sacrifice first is one that the Democrats will be hard-pressed to ask. This places the Dems in a very difficult position — one the Republicans should exploit.


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