Freezing the wages of the federal work force for two years moves this sector toward the kind of cost-cutting measures long adopted in local governments and the private sector.

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A TWO-YEAR wage freeze for federal workers moves this work force toward the kinds of fiscal rebalancing under way in local governments and the private sector.

President Obama announced the wage freeze this week, calling raises for federal employees “inappropriate” right now. In light of an economy still flat on its back, Obama’s words were an understatement.

The federal treasury would save $28 billion over five years, a small but certainly not insignificant amount of money. Naturally, some are criticizing the freeze as symbolic in the face of America’s staggering debt.

That’s a false argument, and one that overlooks the need to restructure spending in both large and small arenas.

It is tempting to ignore smaller budgets and go after the larger, and more politically contentious, items. But if deficit fighters only went after the budget busters, say Social Security or military spending, few reductions would ever happen.

A freeze on federal pay is an acceptable part of a larger strategy.

At 2.1 million civilian employees, the federal government is the nation’s largest employer. The question of whether a work force of this size is really necessary ought to loom large as a substantial number of openings are created in the next decade by retirements. Fears that valuable federal employees will leave for greener pastures seem less acute in this era of jobs scarcity.

Federal workers have not shared in the financial sacrifices made by other employment sectors. Federal wages have increased during the recession because of automatic formulas in the law that require step-in-grade and cost-of-living adjustments. Federal civilian employees got a 2 percent raise in 2010, a 3.9 percent raise in 2009, and a 3.5 percent raise in 2008.

The president’s deficit-reduction commission is expected to release a final fiscal blueprint Friday that may propose a longer, deeper freeze on federal wages. Last month, the bipartisan panel’s leaders called for a three-year freeze, including bonuses, step increases and other compensation. The rest of the commission may or may not go along with that.

Freezing federal pay starts the conversation.