Characterizing the federal workforce as bloated and overpaid, former Florida governor Jeb Bush on Monday said that if he were elected president in 2016, he would impose a freeze on federal hiring as part of a plan designed to reduce the government workforce by 10 percent over four years.
Bush described a 10 percent reduction in federal headcount as “a realistic goal, saving tens of billions of dollars, and without adding to unemployment.”
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The proposal came as part of a wide-ranging speech on government reform delivered in his home state of Florida. Bush attacked the “habitual practice of deficit spending” and called for both a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution and a “constitutionally sound line-item veto” that the president could use to eliminate specific areas of spending.
Bush’s plan to reduce the federal workforce was among the most fleshed-out of the proposals in his remarks. He claimed that similar cuts in Florida during his time as governor had been key to restoring the state’s fiscal health.
However, he made no effort to make the case that the federal government is, in fact, overstaffed by a factor of 10 percent, saying only that as federal workers retire, “It’s a fairly safe bet that not everyone who leaves has to be replaced.” He also didn’t explain how the elimination of hundreds of thousands of jobs would have no impact on unemployment.
Government reform advocates were quick to praise Bush for addressing the issue of federal personnel reform.
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“The starting point is to say I’m pleased to hear that issues around how our government is run are becoming part of the campaign,” said Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service in Washington. “It’s something really important and I hope we see more of it.”
“He should be commended for talking about public service at all,” said David E. Lewis, co-director of Vanderbilt University’s Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions.
However, neither was completely sold on the specifics of Bush’s plan. For example, a 10 percent reduction in the government workforce might be problematic, said Lewis.
“I think it’s realistic; I’m not sure it’s desirable,” said Lewis.
Scholars are quick to point out that despite a widespread perception that the federal government is constantly adding employees, the actual size of the civilian, non-Postal Service sector of the government workforce has been stagnant since the early 1960s. That does not account for the huge increase in contracted services from 2001-2010. (Below is a chart from the Project on Government Oversight that deals with components of the defense budget.) Nor does it account for the vast amount of productivity gained through technology that has eliminated many of those jobs, especially among clerical workers.
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“Federal spending has quadrupled since 1960, and the workforce has stayed the same size,” said Lewis.
And even granting that a reduction in federal headcount is desirable, letting it happen solely through attrition, though it may reduce the impact on federal workers, probably isn’t the best way to go. Lewis recently completed a major study of federal management-level personal, and one of the key findings is that the private sector is constantly poaching top talent from the government.
“The most valuable people are leaving, and now you say you’re not going to replace those people?” he said. “At least in the short run, there’s going to be significant performance issues.”
Bush also suggested that in addition to being overstaffed, the government pays its employees too much.
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“Many federal employees are paid far more than their private-sector counterparts,” he said. “Compared to private sector employees, federal employees earn more than $1500 more per year in wages and nearly $16,000 more in benefits.”
Bush’s campaign staff said that the compensation figures were drawn from studies by the Office of Personnel Management and the Government Accountability Office. However, there are also competing studies demonstrating that many government employees are dramatically underpaid compared to their private sector counterparts.
“It’s a pretty bitterly contested number in the sense that some people argue that federal government employees are overpaid and other argue that they are underpaid,” said Lewis. In the end though, both Lewis and Stier believe that arguments about the size of the workforce and compensation are dead ends.
“It’s not about headcount,” said Stier, describing that discussion as “stale, old, and not useful.” On pay, he said, “We’ve been having the wrong conversation around compensation in Washington. The real conversation ought to be about whether we are paying feds the right way.”
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Both Stier and Lewis argue for a more market-oriented system of setting compensation – something Bush did touch on in his remarks, calling for a system in which pay would “depend on the type of job and the quality of the work.”
While they might quibble on some details, both experts repeated that their overriding reaction to the Bush speech was excitement that the issue of government reform was being addressed at all.
“It’s really, really important for candidates to see this as part of the conversation,” said Stier.