Why the Federal Workforce May Not be Too Large After All
Policy + Politics

Why the Federal Workforce May Not be Too Large After All


The federal workforce is under attack again, with Republican lawmakers and presidential candidates proposing to shrink, consolidate and dismantle some agencies that duplicate the work of other agencies—and one that a presidential candidate seems to think is perfectly useless.

Billionaire Donald Trump, the GOP frontrunner, insists that as president he could quickly whittle away the deficit by eliminating government “waste, fraud and abuse” and by targeting agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Education for dramatic downsizing or oblivion.  

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“We’re bringing education locally,” Trump explained during a debate earlier this year. “The Department of Environmental Protection, we are going to get rid of it in almost every form. We’re going to have little tidbits left. But we’re going to take tremendous amounts out.”

Republican Ohio Gov. John Kasich has vowed to “shrink and dismantle the Washington bureaucracy” to keep spending under control and “get our economy going again.” And Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) wants to literally shutter the Internal Revenue Service – the nation’s chief tax collection and enforcement agency-- and simplify the federal tax code to the point that Americans can file their annual tax returns on the back of a postcard.

The IRS, one of the most reviled federal agencies, already has felt the brunt of funding cuts. Over the past five years, Republican lawmakers have cut the agency’s budget by nearly $1 billion and reduced its staff by roughly 17,000 -- with some of that reflecting a move toward automated filings that requires fewer paper shufflers. Although the IRS was granted a small budget increase last year, agency officials complain of understaffing in key areas, including tax enforcement.

The federal workforce is a perennial political punching bag, and part of the reason is that bureaucrats are faceless and relatively powerless to defend themselves from criticism, valid or otherwise. Over the decades, the federal workforce has been a frequent target of government reform efforts by Democratic and Republican administrations alike looking to downsize the government through attrition, outsourcing and privatizing federal services.

Related: Why Government and Innovation Are Like Oil and Water

For instance, President Obama took office in 2009 vowing to reinvent government. At one point, he proposed saving taxpayers $3 billion over ten years by consolidating six trade and commerce agencies into one new department to make it easier for U.S. businesses to compete and export while eliminating 2,000 superfluous jobs. But Congress blocked the effort.

It’s hard to argue that a lot of criticism of the government work force isn’t valid. Over the years, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and federal departmental inspectors general have issued thousands of reports documenting mind boggling wasteful spending. Yet many of the political attacks on the workforce are ill informed or grossly misleading. They also fail to take into account the important work that many dedicated civil servants perform daily.

In an op-ed  published by The Washington Post on Friday,  John J. DiIulio Jr., the former director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, and Paul R. Verkuil, the former chair of the Administrative Conference, offered a highly contrarian view of the federal workforce. The two men have lectured and written widely on the federal bureaucracy and government outsourcing.

Not only is the federal workforce not too big, they argue, there have been roughly the same number of federal workers – give or take a few -- for the past 56 years. “When John F. Kennedy was elected president in 1960, the executive branch employed about 1.8 million full-time bureaucrats, not counting uniformed military personnel and postal workers –the same number as when George W. Bush was elected in 2000,” they wrote. “When Ronald Reagan was reelected in 1984, there were about 2.2 million federal bureaucrats –nearly 200,000 more than when President Obama was elected in 2008.”

Government wasn’t the only area expanding its reach but not its employee base. Technology played a large role in business as well, as the chart below shows.

 Job Creation

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The debate over the size of the government is always a tough one, because there are different ways to count data on civilian workers, postal employees and civilian and military members of the armed services. But historical data compiled by the federal Office of Personnel Management (OPM) pretty much validates DiIulio’s and Verkuil’s major finding: The size of the federal workforce has mostly “flatlined” over the past half century, while government spending  adjusted for inflation has increased five-fold.

Remarkably, even as the federal government grew over the past 50 years with the addition of five cabinet agencies and dozens of more sub-cabinet posts – and a burgeoning list of new federal regulations to enforce -- the size of the federal workforce remained relatively constant.

That was made possible by the federal government’s dramatic move to outsourcing work to the private sector and a heavy reliance on private consultants, especially in the area of defense and homeland security. According to the op-ed, the federal government has millions of “de facto” employees at for-profit and non-profit organizations.

For instance, besides the 800,000 or so civilian workers in the Defense Department, the Pentagon has the equivalent of about 700,000 other full-time workers who are on assignment from private consulting firms and manufacturers. They are part of a huge “shadow workforce” that permeates the government bureaucracy.

Related: The Federal Tech Mess Is Costing Taxpayers Billions

The idea was to bring in talented, skilled workers from the outside to fill in gaps in the government’s technical operations, while trying to save money in salaries and retirement benefits. But there is little evidence that outsourcing of government work actually has saved taxpayers any money. DiIulio and Verkuil cited a 2011 study by the independent Project on Government Oversight (POGO) that estimated that “the contractors were paid roughly twice as much as federal workers would have been paid for the same work.”

Of course, outsourced salaries do not account for the cost of federal workers’ lifetime pensions, their healthcare insurance and other benefits for them and their families that over time could easily exceed the cost of a full-time federal contract employee.

Finally, there’s the question of how much could be saved if politicians like Trump and Cruz actually were able to take an ax to the government and dismantle many of the departments and agencies.

Eliminating “every last full-time bureaucrat,” from the Department of Agriculture to the IRS to the Department of Veterans Affairs, would save $250 billion annually in wages and benefits, according to DiIulio and Verkuil. “Compare that with the more than $300 billion a year that Washington spends on defense contractors and the more than $600 billion a year it spends on Medicare beneficiaries.”