After six budget showdowns, big government is mostly unchanged
In terms of people, the federal government is smaller by about 170,000 employees. In many cases, the reductions came as employees left, and cash-strapped agencies could not afford to replace them.
Today, the government workforce includes 2.7 million civilian employees, including postal workers — a number that is roughly equal to the population of Nevada. It also includes 1.4 million active-duty members of the military. That’s roughly the population of Hawaii.
But those numbers are still incomplete. They do not count a vast number of other people who also do the government’s work: private contractors who do federal work full time. It’s hard to judge the actual size of the government — or the actual scope of its work — without knowing how many of these people exist.
The Obama administration doesn’t. It was supposed to have started counting these contractors: Congress ordered it in 2009. But the formal regulations haven’t been finalized. So there is still no full count. There are only educated guesses.
The trade association for federal contractors, for instance, guesses the number may be about 1.7 million full-time contractors. That would make the actual size of the federal workforce 5.8 million people.
More than the populations of 31 states. Almost as many people as Maryland. But who really knows?
“It’s a good question,” said Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.), who chairs a House subcommittee on the federal workforce. Farenthold said that, in his committee, “I just don’t think anybody’s thought to ask it.”
This code book had always been a living example of government inertia. Time went by, rules went up, and the book grew from a doorstop to a car stop. But Obama made an effort to fight that trend.
He announced a “regulatory lookback” to eliminate unnecessary rules. A few got the ax. The administration cited five examples: One of them, dating from the 1970s, mandated that a milk spill should be treated as an oil spill.
But the book kept growing.
In all, the Code of Federal Regulations has grown by 16,500 pages under Obama. Nine Bibles.
Finally, the government can be measured in buildings. At last count — in 2010 — the federal government had about 399,000 of those. Inside them was enough space to cover the District of Columbia twice over with cubicles.