You sometimes hear the claim that Republicans hate public spending. In practice, however, their hatred is selective. They tend to be OK with spending that flows into the pockets of private-sector friends, whether it’s mercenaries or for-profit colleges. No, what they really hate are two kinds of spending: outlays that help Americans afford life’s essentials, like food and health care, and paying wages to government employees.
So there’s a sense in which Donald Trump’s decision to use executive authority to deny all federal workers a cost-of-living adjustment is squarely in the Republican mainstream. But the timing is odd.
After all, the jihad against government workers probably reached its high point in 2010-2011, along with the Tea Party movement. Denunciations of big government were all the rage, bolstered in part by false claims that Barack Obama had presided over an explosion in federal employment. (What actually happened was a temporary spike associated with the 2010 census – something that happens every 10 years whoever is president.)
Since then, however, the public has, I think, gradually become aware of the realities of the situation. The vast majority of government workers are employed by state and local governments – and more than half of these state and local workers are in education, with much of the remaining employment in public safety (police and firefighting.) So the typical government employee isn’t a bureaucrat doing nothing; he or (often) she is a schoolteacher.
And schoolteachers are hardly living high off the hog. On the contrary, their pay has lagged ever farther behind that of comparably qualified people in the private sector, not to mention the fact that thanks to budget cuts many teachers end up buying school supplies out of their own pockets. The squeeze on teachers has led to a nationwide walkout movement – and the public seems broadly supportive.
So this is, as I said, sort of an odd moment for Trump to put a squeeze on government workers. True, these are federal workers, so we’re not talking about schoolteachers. But we are talking about people who keep us safe, or care for those who previously helped keep us safe: about two-thirds of the amount the federal government spends on employee compensation goes to the Department of Defense, the Department of Veterans Affairs, or the Department of Homeland Security.
How well are these workers paid? Federal workers with low levels of education are paid more than their counterparts in the private sector – but do you really want our government to emulate the always-low-wages policies of, say, fast food chains? More educated workers, on the other hand, are paid substantially less than private-sector equivalents, and CBO finds that overall the federal government pays only about 3 percent more than it would if it matched private pay schedules.
What is Trump’s justification for denying these workers a cost of living adjustment? He says that it’s about putting us on a “fiscally sustainable course,” which is extremely rich for someone who just rammed through a huge tax cut for corporations and the wealthy. What makes it even richer is that on the same day that he announced that he was cancelling the pay rise, Trump floated the idea of using executive action to index capital gains to inflation, a de facto tax cut that would increase the deficit, and deliver 63 percent of its benefits to the wealthiest 0.1 percent of the population, 86 percent to the top 1 percent.
So what’s really going on? Giving government workers the shaft is long-term G.O.P. policy, but even so I suspect that Congressional Republicans would have preferred that Trump not make this announcement two months before the midterm elections. The timing, as opposed to the general hostility to public servants, is probably personal to Trump.
Two things in particular seem relevant here. First, Trump has always chiseled and cheated those who work for him: his business career is littered with tales of unpaid workers and contractors. Since he makes no distinction between personal business and being president, squeezing a few bucks out of the federal workforce just comes naturally.
Beyond that, Trump is feeling under siege from the “deep state,” which to him means any part of the government that answers to rule of law as opposed to being personally loyal to him. His wage chiseling may in part represent a way of lashing out at everyone in government: these days they all look like Robert Mueller to him.
Whatever the precise motivations, this is a teachable moment, one that reveals not only another layer of Trump’s personal awfulness but what Republicans really mean when they pretend to care about fiscal responsibility.