Last week, I untangled Sen. Orrin Hatch’s error-filled claims that the government has grown “at breakneck speed” under Obama. Today, let’s look a little further at what the Reduce and Cap the Federal Workforce Act seeks to accomplish — and whether it will actually have a noticeable effect on limiting the government’s size.
The bill would require agencies (excluding the CIA, FBI, Secret Service and Executive Office of the President) to tell Congress how many employees they currently have, and how many they had as of Feb. 16, 2009. If any agencies except for the Defense and Homeland Security departments have increased in size over that time, they’ll have to cut staff through attrition until they get down to February 2009 levels.
First off, statistics very close to the numbers Hatch is looking for can be found on OPM’s FedScope site. After the jump are statistics from the Central Personnel Data File on how the cabinet-level agencies’ staffing has changed over a year. (All numbers are in thousands, and March 2010 is the most recent data available.)
|March 2009||March 2010||Change|
So from the overall 94,600-person increase in the federal workforce, let’s subtract the 6,500 at the Commerce Department, since that almost entirely represents a temporary staffing increase for the decennial Census that is already being drawn down.
That leaves 88,100 new employees. But since the already-exempted Defense added 43,500 new employees, DHS added 3,300, and the FBI alone added 2,200, that places 49,000 new hires — well over half the federal increase — off-limits. Does that leave enough potential cuts — 45,600 remaining new hires to be reduced through attrition — to really make a difference in the size of the government?
And let’s look at where those cuts would come from under Hatch’s bill. Once again, the Veterans Affairs Department makes up a large chunk of that increase with 11,700 new hires over the last year. But do we really want to cut the new doctors and nurses hired recently to help care for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans? Or do we want to slash the people who process vets’ benefits claims to keep those medical staffers?
Or take the Social Security Administration, which added 3,700 new employees. Do we want to return to the days of massive backlogs delaying people’s Social Security benefits? Unless we’re willing to tackle the hard work of entitlement reform and draw down the benefits the government provides to people — and it’s not my place to open up that can of worms here — we’re going to need SSA employees to process those benefits.
Anyone who expects agencies to draw down their missions and spend less on their own because they don’t have enough staff is kidding themselves. Agencies will either go to contractors — which sometimes can cost more than actual federal employees — or they just won’t be able to do their jobs very well. It’s penny-wise and pound-foolish to try to save by cutting staffs, if we end up wasting even more because agencies can’t accomplish their missions.
Broad, sweeping bills targeting an allegedly exploding federal workforce — especially when we start taking large pieces off the table right away — are just avoiding the genuinely difficult conversation we need to have: What role do we want the government to play in our nation? If it’s too big, what can we do without? What functions are no longer needed, or are so badly underperforming that we may as well lose them?
Are we even capable of having that conversation anymore?