WASHINGTON — Lawrence J. Korb was assistant secretary of defense, one of the highest-ranking civilians at the Pentagon, when he overheard his military subordinates griping about their pay. He offered to trade paychecks with either of them, a lieutenant colonel or a colonel.
"My check was the lowest in terms of net pay--they had no medical, no life insurance (deductions), no state income tax," said Korb, who left the government in 1985. "Most military people have no idea of the real value of their compensation."
The General Accounting Office has calculated that military compensation is now an average of 27% higher than that of civil servants.
The GAO found that, counting retirement and medical benefits, a 25-year-old man with a high school diploma made $29,639 in the service, compared to $25,953 in the bureaucracy. A 35-year-old man with a college education made $65,671 in the military, $46,382 in the civil service. The military advantage for women was even larger.
Policy Questions Raised
The movement of military pay past civilian pay in this generation, for the first time in American history, has raised new questions for federal policy-makers. The stakes are high: The annual payroll for each system is $74 billion, the Office of Management and Budget said.
Are military personnel paid too much or the bureaucrats too little? Are the jobs comparable, and if so, at what levels? Is the nation buying a higher-quality military force than it needs? Is the quality of the civilian work force deteriorating? In a time of belt-tightening, should soldiers be a budget target like their civilian counterparts?
Thousands of military and civilian jobs are similar, federal officials say. But "comparisons between military pay and civilian pay don't mean very much unless you look at specific jobs," said Martin Binkin, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "What do you compare an infantryman's job to on the civilian side? What about the guy who flies Navy jets off a carrier; who do you compare him to?
'It's Hard to Decide'
"Some people believe we're paying too much because we're overestimating how qualified (military recruits) need to be. The services naturally seek as many highly qualified people as they can get. Is military pay about right? It's hard to decide because there are no comparable jobs and nobody can define the kind of quality necessary," Binkin said. "But we're getting relatively more qualified people today than in the past."
Although the military keeps records on the results of standardized tests taken by recruits, no comparable system exists on the civilian side. As a result, it is impossible to tell whether the pay gap is hurting the quality of newcomers in the civil service.
Politics, unarguably, has been a factor in military-civilian pay differences. As Alan K. (Scotty) Campbell, former head of the Office of Personnel Management, said, the argument for civilian pay is "not nearly as strong on the Hill" as the case made for military pay. He thinks that the gap between military and civilian pay has grown over the last decade and called the GAO study "healthy."
'Pay Is Out of Whack'
"It illustrates that pay makes a difference" for the military, he said. "The same thing is true on the civilian side--pay is out of whack and inadequate pay, eventually and perhaps already, hurts in attracting people."
Richard A. Stubbing, a professor at Duke University and author of "The Defense Game," believes the military is overpaid. He blames this on the Pentagon's insistence on across-the-board increases in response to spot shortages in certain occupational specialties.
Military salaries compare favorably with those in business, Stubbing said. "The average young fellow in the military is drawing more than in every industry except durable goods, where the average age is likely to be 40 or 45 years old."
Pentagon officials failed to respond to repeated requests for comment on the report from the GAO, Congress' investigative agency.
For most of the nation's history, military recruits were paid like church mice. The military went from 1922 to 1941 without a raise and even took a pay cut during the Depression.
Amendment Linked Pay
In 1966, Rep. L. Mendel Rivers (D-S.C.) pushed through an amendment tying military pay to civilian pay, which at that time was higher and politically more popular. When the bureaucrats got a raise, the guy in the trenches was supposed to get the same increase.
Inside the Administration, the OMB worked out a schedule like this: A private first class would get as much as a GS-5--an entry-level civil service job. A master sergeant would get as much as a GS-9--a journeyman professional or administrative job. A major general would make as much as a GS-18--the pinnacle of the civilian schedule. Salaries would be set appropriately at intervening levels.