Federal Diary: Government continues to shrink, despite ‘obesity problem’ rhetoric

Columnist February 14, 2012

On Wednesday morning the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform will hold a hearing that’s designed to examine what the majority Republicans call “the federal government’s obesity problem.”

If Republicans want a petite government, they should applaud the direction the federal workforce is heading.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

The government “needs to recognize that in today’s technological world, it can do more with fewer people,” Rep. Dennis A. Ross (R-Fla.), chairman of the House federal workforce subcommittee, said after the Obama administration released its budget on Monday. Ross’s clear implication: President Obama is doing the opposite.

Yet, Uncle Sam already is serving more with less and has been slimming his workforce, compared to the country’s population, at a rate that would make Jenny Craig jealous.

“The size of the Federal civilian workforce relative to the country’s population has declined dramatically over the last several decades, notwithstanding occasional upticks due, for example, to military conflicts and the enumeration of the Census,” says “Improving the Federal Workforce,” a chapter in the administration’s fiscal year 2013 budget documents.

Consider these budget statistics:

■“In the 1950s and 1960s, there were on average 92 residents for every Federal worker.

■“In the 1980s and 1990s, there were on average 106 residents for every Federal worker.

■ “By 2011, the ratio had increased to 145 residents for every Federal worker.

■ “Since the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. population increased by 76 percent, the private sector workforce surged 133 percent, while the size of the Federal workforce rose just 11 percent.”

This means each worker today serves far more people than at any period since the 1950s. To put it in perspective, the budget says: “Relative to the private sector, the Federal workforce is less than half the size it was back in the 1950s and 1960s. The picture that emerges is one of a Federal civilian workforce whose size has significantly shrunk compared to the size of the overall U.S. population, the private sector workforce and the size of Federal expenditures.”

And data in the budget indicate in absolute numbers that the workforce is almost flat, if not shrinking. The executive branch civilian employment figure hit 2,127,900 in 2010 and is projected to fall to 2,110,000 in 2013. That, however, would be a tiny increase over 2011 and 2012. These figures are in the same neighborhood as those for the workforce under President Reagan, whom Republicans repeatedly cite as the hero of small government. At its peak, the Reagan workforce reached 2,252,000, which remains the highest since the Vietnam War, according to White House data. Obama can’t match those numbers. (None of the figures include the Postal Service.)

It’s also worth noting that the growth in recent years came largely in security-related agencies following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“Between 2001 and 2011, security agency employment grew, while non-security employment declined,” the budget document says. “For example, civilians working for the Department of the Army grew by more than 60,000, with a similar level of increase in people working for the Veterans Health Administration. Customs and Border Protection also grew more than 30,000 to keep our citizens safe at home.”

Among those scheduled to testify at Wednesday’s hearing is Sen. Ronald H. Johnson (R-Wis.), the top Republican on the Senate’s federal workforce subcommittee. In September, he introduced legislation that would cut the federal workforce by 10 percent by 2015. Johnson wants the government to hire one worker for every three that leave. In November, the House committee approved a bill, sponsored by Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), that would do the same thing.

“If we’re ever to have any hope of reining in the size, scope and cost of government, we need to look at the size of the federal workforce,” Johnson said when he introduced his bill.

Republicans may sneer at the suggestion, but the Obama administration says it has been doing just that.

The budget cites “aggressive actions” to reduce staff: “Some agencies have imposed hiring freezes, others are using replacement ratios to allow fewer hires than separations, and many are offering early retirement and separation incentives. Across the Government, agencies are embracing a variety of workforce reduction tools to bring their personnel levels down.”

While this push to cut the workforce in the face of real budget problems is understandable, no one ever talks about the impact working with fewer people could have on government services. Every proposal to cut the workforce should have a service impact statement. Maybe the public would decide they don’t need so many services.

Maybe they would decide good, effective government is worth the cost.

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson. Follow the Federal Diary on Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

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