Think about it: Who decides the pay? Legislators.
A century ago and more, during the days of the "spoils system," one tried to get government jobs for people not because the jobs necessarily paid that well, but because they paid well for the amount of work done. Government work was a good place for artists or college grads from liberal schools. That is, for people who couldn't make it as artists and artisans and preachers and teachers, people for whom clerking in private practice was something worth shirking. Nathaniel Hawthorne famously wanted federal employ. In those days, government jobs were rather like short-term sinecures (often limited to the term of the party in office). A federal job was great haven for a novelist waiting to crank out a best seller.
Nowadays, of course, the spoils system is over. So to speak. Fewer people get jobs in government because they know someone who knows the new president or the newly elected Senator. We have a "more efficient" system now, the civil service. You have to take tests. And it certainly helps to sport a college degree. But once you get hired, it's hard to get fired, and your wages keep going up and up.
Looked at one way, it's an improvement over the old way of doing things.
Looked at another, it corrupts the whole economy. (Does it really help workers to idealize a system wherein productivity means almost nothing?)
But it doesn't corrupt legislators. Much. It gives legislators precious little to dole out to supporters. Unlike under the spoils system, it's harder for representatives to buy off constituents (other than by a general increase in government and catering to public employee unions, of course). What to do?
Pork to the rescue! Porkbarrel spending on constituent and private projects is an amazingly efficient way to dole out favors with other people's money. It's the spoils system reborn.
And as Mr. Edwards pointed out in another of his Cato reports, this sort of government favoring of private individuals is not limited to the federal government. Public debt for private projects amounts to 23 percent of today's total municipal debt. The old joke used to be "thank God we don't get all the government we pay for." Now taxpayers pay for so much that isn't government, we can repeat the old line only with an added bitterness.
There's something inherent in unlimited representative government, and that something is the spreading, thickly, of money to favored supporters. When the spoils system was replaced with a civil service, a new form of spoils grew to take its place.
Wouldn't it be nice if our representatives realized that it wasn't their job to spread money around without limit? If they could give up on the New Spoils System, on the one hand, and exercise some fiduciary responsibility regarding our paid employees, on the other, fiscal policy wouldn't be such a mess.
I won't be holding my breath.
And I won't be holding my breath for the people who complain about "overpaid corporate execs" to turn their ire against the thousands upon thousands of overpaid federal employees. The charge of "greed" will never affix to civil servants and their union representatives.
But greed is a cheap shot charge here as elsewhere. Everybody wants more money, and everybody has a right to ask for more. And employers have just as much right to offer only so much.
Perhaps it's just that, when negotiating with workers and unions, our representatives don't have much spine simply because the money "isn't theirs," and thus they have scant incentive to use it wisely.
The trouble with this explanation is not that it doesn't explain. It explains the situation too well: what room is left for reform? It suggests that politics and bureaucracies are themselves congenitally incapable of rational management.
Sure government workers are overpaid. But that only points to the bigger problem: the federal government has escaped popular control, and is increasingly run not for the benefit of the people, but for the benefit of the people in government.