Orrin Hatch's fuzzy math on federal workers

Sen. Orrin Hatch

Sen. Orrin Hatch

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, last Thursday introduced the latest bill seeking to cap the federal workforce. But the press release announcing the Reduce and Cap the Federal Workforce Act is so riddled with bad numbers and misinformation that it requires some straightening out.

Here are the stats Hatch cites as proof that the federal government “is growing at breakneck speed”:

From 1981 through 2008, the senator noted, civilian workers numbered between 1.1 million and 1.2 million. The Obama administration is forecasting the government’s workforce this year will reach 2.15 million and serve 310 million Americans.

“That is almost a fifty percent* increase since 2008,” Hatch said.

First off, the release doesn’t cite a source for those numbers (a spokeswoman for Hatch told me she wasn’t sure where they came from and said the person who knows more about them is out of the office this week). I suspect they drew the stats from the Historical Tables of the 2011 budget, released earlier this year. Open up table 17.1 and you’ll find stats on the civilian full-time workforce for the executive branch.

This chart first lists total executive branch employees for each fiscal year going back to 1981, then Defense Department employees, then the civilian workforce numbers (that is, total workforce minus DoD employees). And yes, when DoD employees are excluded, the federal workforce does roughly fluctuate between 1.1 million and 1.2 million for much of the last three decades.

But Hatch’s kicker — a 2.15 million-person workforce this fiscal year — does include DoD employees. Hatch is comparing apples to oranges here to make the growth in the federal workforce seem much more drastic than it actually is.

And yes, the federal government is growing — no doubt about that. The actual civilian workforce  — excluding DoD figures — is projected to top 1.4 million this fiscal year. That’s an almost 23 percent increase since 1981. However, this is a Census year, and the Commerce Department always brings on tens of thousands of temporary workers once a decade that are quickly dropped from the payrolls. The government is expected to shed 80,000 non-DoD workers in fiscal 2011, largely due to the decline in temporary Census workers.

I did some number crunching just now using Fedscope (the Office of Personnel Management’s online personnel data repository) to put the growth in government into some better context. Between September 1998 (the earliest data available on Fedscope) and September 2009, the federal government added about 227,900 new employees.

But almost a quarter of that increase — 56,400 — came at the Veterans Affairs Department, which has its hands full treating badly wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. The Homeland Security Department has also grown in size as the government hired thousands of Border Patrol agents, TSA screeners, and others. And Defense also grew by roughly 17,000 employees since 1998.

The bulk of those increases occurred during the Bush administration. So to pin the entirety of the government’s workforce growth on Obama — and to inflate that growth until it looks like he almost doubled it in a year and a half — just doesn’t hold water.

And in what I’m sure is completely unrelated news, only twelve more weeks until election day.

* Actually, even if Hatch’s numbers held water, it would be an increase of between 79 and 95 percent. But who’s counting?


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  2. civilian workforce stayed flat from 2002 to 2007…then it started to jump.

    2007 to 2009 it jumped 8.7%

    [skipping 2010 because of the census]

    2007 to est. 2011: jumps 14.9%!

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