Big Government Gets Bigger

By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 6, 2006

The federal government keeps getting bigger.

The Republican Party's oft-stated affinity for smaller government has not applied during the Bush administration. According to a recent study, not only is the number of federal civil servants on the rise, but so are the numbers of employees working for government-funded contractors and for organizations that receive government grants.

Roll all of those together -- and mix in the numbers of postal workers and military personnel on the federal payroll -- and the "true size" of the federal government stands at 14.6 million employees, said Paul C. Light, the study's author and a government professor at New York University.

That compares with 12.1 million employees in 2002, said Light, who has tracked the growth of government for years and has data for as far back as 1990. The latest increase is almost entirely due to contractors, whose ranks swelled by 2.5 million since 2002, Light wrote in his 10-page research brief.

"This time, almost all of the growth can be attributed from the war on terrorism, which boosted Defense spending for both goods and services systems and covered the continued cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq," he wrote.

"The rest of the hidden workforce held steady at roughly 2.9 million grantees, while civil service employment inched up and postal employment fell."

Light calls the 10.5 million federal contractors and grantees the government's "hidden workforce" because politicians tend not to mention them when discussing the size of the federal bureaucracy. Yet such workers absorbed nearly $400 billion in federal contracting funds and $100 billion in federal grants in 2005. They often performed vital work such as researching new vaccines, running federal computer systems and making body armor, weapons and meals for the military.

The number of civil servants is increasing, too, up 54,000 since 2002 to 1.9 million workers. That is still fewer than the 2.2 million civil servants on the federal payroll in 1990, at the end of the Cold War.

Light acknowledges that his numbers of contractors and grantee employees are estimates from federal procurement and grant data, and are harder to nail down than the number of civil servants. But the trend is clear, he said.

Politicians who focus on the size of the civil service and fail to acknowledge the hidden workforce "encourage the public into believing that it truly can get more for less," Light said. And the heavy reliance on such workers, while sometimes necessary, makes it more difficult to figure out who is accountable when things go wrong, he said.

"The federal government often uses contractors and grantees to provide talent it cannot recruit, specialized services it cannot produce, competition it cannot generate among its own organizations, and equipment that it cannot and should not build itself," Light wrote.

"[I]t hardly matters who produces the goods and services as long as the federal government is honest with the public about the true cost of delivering on the promises it makes."

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