Hard-working federal employees are being squeezed by Congress again, as some of my colleagues attempt to attach an extension of the pay freeze to pending highway funding bills. This comes after Congress last month effectively cut the pay of new employees by forcing them to pay more toward their pensions ? permanently ? to offset the costs of just 10 months of unemployment. I strongly oppose this new habit of picking the pockets of America’s dedicated middle-class public servants.

Talented, well-trained federal workers sacrifice high-paying jobs in the private sector to serve their country. They keep our nation safe, inspect our food, patrol our borders and so much more.

We are failing to make needed investments in our nation’s future if we attack, insult, and penalize federal workers and push them out of public service.

We damage our security and pay more in the long run when we do not pay competitive wages to senior officials tasked with making decisions critical to the well-being of our nation. Often, we lose senior-level federal employees to contractors, where taxpayers often are forced to pay far more for their services. Even now, in some cases, taxpayers are paying up to $700,000 in compensation annually for a single federal contract employee. Clearly, it is more cost-effective to motivate people to stay in or join the federal workforce.

Some of my colleagues who are attempting to make a case for reducing federal pay and benefits cite a recent Congressional Budget Office report comparing federal versus private-sector compensation.

CBO’s report said that workers without college degrees were paid higher average wages in the federal government than in the private sector, but noted that workers with college degrees ? the bulk of the federal workforce ? were paid about the same, and workers with graduate or professional degrees were paid significantly less. Averaged across all categories, federal workers were paid 2 percent more.

However, the report was flawed.

CBO relied on limited survey data of self-reported wages and occupations, and some federal contractors inaccurately reported that they are federal employees. CBO did not account for complexity or other aspects of jobs, instead using broad occupational categories. As Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry pointed out, we should pay the federal forklift operator transporting nuclear-tipped torpedoes more than the private-sector forklift operator moving boxes.

The working paper that accompanies CBO’s report shows that the overall wage difference is explained by a smaller gender pay gap in the federal sector. If the private sector paid women comparably with men, the entire gap would disappear. So to those citing this report, I suggest we focus on reducing the gender pay gap in the private sector rather than reducing federal pay.

CBO did find that federal benefits are often higher than private-sector benefits. One reason is that private companies have been cutting pensions, a trend that will lead to a tragic, predictable and preventable increase in the number of older Americans living in poverty. Rather than pinching federal workers, Congress should focus on increasing long-term economic security for all Americans.

Another reason is that federal employees are often allowed to keep their health insurance in retirement, which has also become uncommon in the private sector. But this merely shifts costs onto the federal Medicare and Medicaid programs.

It is time to stop targeting federal employees and focus on protecting all middle-class Americans’ economic security.

We should honor and protect those who serve our country in the federal workforce. To our talented hard-working federal employees, you have my deep gratitude and thanks. I urge my colleagues to respect and defend you as well.

Daniel K. Akaka is a Democratic senator from Hawaii and is chairman of the Senate federal workforce subcommittee.