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As a long-time federal employee who gives up a lot to work where he does, I have just one thing to say about the proposed federal employee pay freeze: I think it’s a terrific idea.

Well, not exactly terrific, particularly if you think about how little difference it would actually make. But symbolic gestures can matter in politics. And if this one lays the groundwork for something that’s actually important, then I’m all for it.

To get an idea of how insignificant a federal pay freeze would be, take a look at the numbers from 2008, the most current data available. For that year, the federal government payroll was about $15 billion. During that same year, the Bush administration spent $2.9 trillion.

Suppose a pay freeze would save 10 percent of payroll costs. The fraction of spending reduced would have been $1.5 billion out of $2.9 trillion, that’s one-half of one-tenth of 1 percent of all federal outlays.

And let’s not forget this is 2-year-old data. Bush was the biggest spender since LBJ, but when it comes to red ink, Obama and the until-recently-Democratic Congress make Bush look like a piker.

Hooray for the courage of Washington, D.C! Through the miracle of bipartisan consensus, they boldy solved one-half of one-tenth of 1 percent of our spending problem.

Given that a pay freeze wouldn’t actually accomplish anything tangible, what about the intangible? How would it work as a symbolic gesture? That’s a tougher question, because it’s hard to know what a pay freeze would actually mean.

Federal employee compensation is determined by the classification of your position and the “step” within that classification. Basically your “step” goes up every year. Your salary is determined by a table released by the Office of Personnel Management. Look up your classification and your step in the table (with some non-trivial adjustments based on where you live), and that’s your salary. Period.

While in theory you could be denied a step increase, there are tremendous barriers in place to make sure that doesn’t happen. I suppose out of 2.5 million federal employees, somebody somewhere gets denied a step increase every once in a while, but in more than 16 years of government work, I’ve never heard of it.

This means that it’s easy to argue that federal salaries are “frozen” when they really aren’t. I’m guessing that a “freeze” would mean the OPM salary table would be held constant for one year.

But we would still get step increases. Even though it would mean less of an increase than we were accustomed to, in the language of Washington, that still counts as a “cut.” Compared to employees in the private sector, who might actually make less money from year to year or lose their jobs through no fault of their own, I think that’s really insulting.

Don’t get me wrong, I could always use more money. But I think I speak for many federal employees when I say that if our salaries do get “frozen,” whatever that means, it would mean a lot more if it started a larger, much more substantive national conversation. Something that attempted to build consensus on cutting entitlements and spending in a substantive, across-the-board way. Something that truly held out realistic hopes for restoring fiscal sanity and long-term prosperity to America.

After all, we wouldn’t work for our country if we wanted anything less.

Barry Fagin is a research associate at the Independence Institute in Golden.