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The high-salaried occupations emerged from a USA TODAY analysis of Office of Personnel Managementfederal workforce data that also found:
•While the highest-salary earners accounted for less than 1% of the 2.1 million federal workers in the data, their ranks soared from the 805 with annualized salaries of $180,000 or more in 2005. Nearly 90% held "excepted service" jobs, meaning they worked at agencies that set their own qualification requirements and aren't subject to the appointment, pay and classification regulations that apply to other civil service posts.
•Doctors held roughly eight out of 10 of the top-salaried jobs. Attorneys accounted for nearly 6%, followed by dentists, with almost 3%, and financial institution examiners, with nearly 2%.
•Nearly two out of three were men. Almost nine out of 10 were 40 or older. And more than half had at least 10 years of federal service.
•California, Maryland, the District of Columbia, New York and Texas had both the highest numbers of the high-salary jobs and the highest number of all federal posts.
The highly skilled, top-salaried jobs identified by the analysis highlight the thorny decisions Congress will face as lawmakers, sharply divided along ideological lines, seek cost savings through federal payroll cuts. The critical nature of many of the health care posts also suggests a need for cost-cutters to evaluate the services performed by specific occupations during any downsizing process.
"If you start trying to do some kind of across-the-board cut, or a rollback of high-salaried people, it's going to have a disproportionate impact," said John Palguta, vice president for policy at the Partnership for Public Service, a non-profit that encourages younger workers to join government service. He added that the impact would hit some agencies where there's a "consensus that these are parts of government we want to work very well."
James Sherk of the Heritage Foundation, a think tank that promotes conservative public policies, said many of the high-paid federal jobs are not overpaid — and may be underpaid — in comparison with the private sector. Still, Sherk said that's not true of the overall federal workforce, so all federal jobs should be carefully evaluated.
"If the private sector has to cut back because we're in tough times, the government should cut back, too," said Sherk, a senior policy analyst in labor economics.
That's exactly what Congress is considering. In the wake of a White House fiscal commission that recommended dramatic cuts, the GOP-controlled House this month approved a 2012 budget plan aimed at cutting federal spending by $5.8 trillion over the next 10 years.
Proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the plan would make deep cuts in discretionary spending programs and transform Medicare from a direct government payment system to a program in which seniors would get vouchers to pay part of the cost of private health insurance. The plan also aims for a 10% cut in the federal workforce by 2014 by allowing the government to hire only one employee for every three who retire.
Ryan's plan has virtually no chance of winning approval in the Democrat-controlled Senate. But his proposal framed the budget debate, as President Obama subsequently offered a plan that the White House said would cut $4 trillion in debt over 12 years by mixing spending cuts and tax increases.
Against that backdrop, USA TODAY analyzed the highest-paid federal workers in Office of Personnel Management employment data, based on its Central Personnel Data File, the most authoritative database of federal executive-branch employees. The data include annualized salary levels and other information for federal workers in September 2010, the end of the last fiscal year. The data don't cover the White House, the federal judiciary, most employees of the legislative branch, federal contractors or some agencies, such as the CIA and National Security Agency.
The Veterans Health Administration topped the list of high-paying jobs. The data showed 12,708 doctors had annualized salaries of $180,000 or more. The agency said its job count was 99 positions less than the Office of Personnel Management's data. The jobs ranged from direct-care physicians to doctor-administrators and chiefs of surgery and other medical departments.
The agency also had 425 dentists in the top-salaried category, the federal data showed.
The VHA operates 152 medical centers nationwide, plus more than 900 outpatient clinics, as it provides care to veterans who served from World War II to those who served during the current struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan. There has been a 39% increase in veterans with service-connected disabilities since 1990, according to a December report by the National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics. Annual outpatient visits to VHA facilities jumped from roughly 50 million in 2003 to more than 70 million last year, the report showed.
"I don't believe that's a particularly unrealistic staffing level," Marisa Palkuti, director of the VHA's health care retention and recruitment office, said of the agency's high-salaried employees. "We are in the ballpark, if not lower than the private sector" in terms of medical salaries.
Paul Light — a New York University professor of government and federal civil service expert who has advocated analyzing federal vacancies and filling positions based on necessity — said Congress is unlikely to apply such a test to VHA medical positions.
"The veterans' lobby is very powerful. They would not allow that winnowing at the top. They just would not," said Light, who stressed that he did not question the care provided by VA doctors.
Paying well for talent
But Light said he was surprised the federal data showed that 598 SEC lawyers ranked second among the largest employee groups with the top annualized salaries.
The financial industry regulator, widely criticized for its failure to detect and stop Ponzi scheme architect Bernard Madoff, "hasn't been doing its job very well, and yet its lawyers come out on top. That's a shock, don't you think?" said Light. Given the national concern with fighting crime, he questioned why federal prosecutors didn't top SEC lawyers in numbers of highest-salaried attorneys.
The SEC said it must pay top salaries to attract the best legal talent from the private sector and remain competitive with other financial regulators.
The highest-salaried attorneys would earn even more if they worked in the private sector, the SEC said. The lawyers help investigate suspected financial scams, pursuing federal civil court actions to shut down and penalize pyramid scheme operators such as Madoff and others who prey on unwary investors. Less than one-third of SEC lawyers earn $180,000 or more, the federal data show.
In February, SEC Chairman Mary Schapiro said her agency, largely funded by fees levied on securities registrations and filings, doesn't have enough money to police properly the financial industry's increasing use of complex new trading strategies and new technologies. Added to that mission, the SEC is expected to draft and oversee dozens of new regulations required under a sweeping financial reform law.
"It is a strain that is already having an impact on our core mission, separate and apart from the new responsibilities that Congress gave us to regulate derivatives, hedge fund advisers and credit-rating agencies," Schapiro said during a February news conference. Testifying before a House subcommittee in March, Schapiro also stressed that the SEC and its attorneys already oversee 35,000 entities, including 11,800 investment advisers, 7,500 mutual funds, and more than 5,000 broker-dealers.
Additionally, the SEC over the last two years launched training, reorganization and hiring initiatives aimed at strengthening its financial oversight. House Republicans have opposed a budget increase for the agency amid their effort to close the nation's budget deficit.
The National Institutes of Health, the nation's medical-research agency, had 579 doctors with annualized salaries of $180,000 or more, the data show. The agency said it has to pay competitive salaries to attract and retain top medical researchers to carry on the mission of finding the cause, prevention and cure of diseases.
The NIH also researches human growth and development; biological effects of environmental contaminants; and mental, addictive and physical disorders.
Other agencies, such as the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and the Comptroller of the Currency, had hundreds of attorneys, administrators or financial examiners in the top-salaried category. But those employees were paid not by taxpayer funds but by assessments on the banks and financial institutions the agencies oversee.
Trimming such positions "really wouldn't save the government any money," said Kevin Mukri, a Comptroller of the Currency spokesman.
But experts who have studied the federal workforce said the ongoing effort to trim the federal budget should include a careful, need-based assessment of all jobs, including those with the highest salaries.
"It's not a question of the size, whether government should be bigger or smaller," Palguta said. "It's really a question of making sure that once we have a consensus on what we want government to do, making sure it can do it well. The only way to do that … is you've got to take it program by program, function by function, agency by agency."
Sherk suggested that the place to focus cost-cutting analysis is "the middle skill level," where he said federal employees often earn more than private sector counterparts. "You can find secretaries making $80,000 a year," he said. "When you're paying for mid-level skill sets, you're paying premium pay for not-premium work." He added, "Basically, the government isn't subject to market forces" and added that federal job expansion "keeps going and going and going, like the Energizer Bunny."
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