Calling for a smaller and lower-paid federal workforce, Republican Tim Pawlenty took his newly official presidential campaign into the belly of the beast on Wednesday: Washington.
It was the third day of what Pawlenty dubbed the “time for truth’’ tour, after appearances this week in corn-dependent Iowa, where he criticized ethanol subsidies, and senior-rich Florida, where he advocated Social Security reform.
“The spirit of this is that there are no sacred cows,’’ the former Minnesota governor said.
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Trying to strike a connection with voters that has so far eluded his nascent campaign, Pawlenty is presenting himself as the rare politician who is willing to tell his audiences what they don't want to hear. It’s a variation of the blunt irreverence that became a trademark of John McCain, who traveled the country in the “Straight Talk Express’’ in his 2000 and 2008 presidential campaigns.
But in a response to a question, Pawlenty said he would not cut the Defense budget, which accounts for more than half of all federal discretionary spending. He also declined to endorse a plan for sweeping Medicare reforms proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. “The direction of it is positive,’’ Pawlenty said, adding that he would offer his own Medicare proposal.
Editorial boards this week have praised Pawlenty for addressing politically sensitive issues. But the two-year freeze on federal workers’ salaries announced by President Obama in November preempts the proposal that Pawlenty made in Washington on Wednesday. Obama's move came on the eve of budget talks with Republican congressional leaders demanding deep cuts.
In a speech at the Cato Institute, Pawlenty advocated freezing one out of every two federal jobs lost to attrition and auditing workers’ compensation. That’s a popular idea at the libertarian think tank, whose analysis of data last year pegged the average wage of federal civilian workers at $81,258, compared with an average of $50,462 for private-sector employees. The public-private gap is even bigger when benefits are included.
“That’s just not fair,’’ Pawlenty said. “We can’t have the people getting paid by taxpayers getting a better deal than the taxpayers themselves.’’
Slashing the public payroll has become a cause célèbre among Republican governors elected in the wake of the fiscally austere tea party movement, including Rick Scott in Florida, Chris Christie in New Jersey, John Kasich in Ohio, and Scott Walker in Wisconsin.
Pawlenty served two terms as governor of Minnesota and was one of only four governors who got an A from the Cato Institute in 2010. He set a state record for vetoes and rejected billions of dollars in tax and spending increases. But earlier in his administration, Cato gave him two Bs and a C for a $200 million annual increase in cigarette taxes and the elimination of a tax break for companies with foreign operations.
In a press conference after his speech on Wednesday, Pawlenty addressed the projected $5 billion deficit facing his successor. Last year, he used a state law that allows the governor to singlehandedly make spending cuts without the Legislature’s approval in fiscal emergencies. But the Minnesota Supreme Court rejected the $2.7 billion in cuts, and the state's Democratic-controlled Legislature has refused to make them permanent.
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