Obama Likely to Need to Hire Tens of Thousands of Federal Workers to Fulfill Budget Goals

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 3, 2009

President Obama's budget is so ambitious, with vast new spending on health care, energy independence, education and services for veterans, that experts say he probably will need to hire tens of thousands of new federal government workers to realize his goals.

The $3.6 trillion plan released last week proposes spending billions to begin initiatives and implement existing programs, and given Obama's insistence that he would scale back the use of private-sector contractors, his priorities could reverse a generational decline in the size of the government workforce.

Exactly how many new workers would be needed remains unclear -- one independent estimate was 100,000, while the conservative Heritage Foundation said it is likely to be closer to a quarter-million.

Administration officials said they cannot determine overall hiring projections until the president's full budget is released this spring, but acknowledged that significant new hiring will occur.

"It is premature to be making any assumptions about overall federal employment levels," White House budget director Peter Orszag said. "We have no desire to bloat bureaucracy -- indeed, just the opposite -- and the budget will not do that."

But, he added, "in several key areas -- from properly auditing contracts to providing quality medical care to veterans and reducing errors in Medicare and other programs -- investing in skilled professionals will not only pay off over time but also immediately deliver better service to taxpayers."

Several major agencies said they are already making plans to grow their workforces, some significantly.

Officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs, for instance, said they expect to hire more than 17,000 new employees by the end of the year, many at hospitals and other facilities to fulfill Obama's pledge to expand veterans' access to health care. The agency -- whose budget will grow by 11 percent, to $56 billion, under Obama's plan -- will add about 7,900 nurses, 3,300 doctors, 3,800 clerks and 2,400 practical nurses, spokeswoman Josephine Schuda said.

At the Social Security Administration, the budget will increase by 10 percent, to $11.6 billion, enabling the agency to hire new staff to handle backlogs on frontline operations, such as local field offices, hearing offices and teleservice centers, spokesman Mark Lassiter said.

Said Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service: "This is obviously a new world. We've had a government that has been starved. . . . When you look at virtually every agency in government -- whether it's food inspectors at the Food and Drug Administration or claims examiners at the Social Security Administration -- across the board, we've had all too few people doing the business of government."

Between 1940 and 1970, the federal civilian workforce swelled from 707,000 to 2.1 million, according to government statistics provided by Stier. But ever since Ronald Reagan swept into the White House in 1981 with a call to decrease the government's footprint, presidents have limited the size of the workforce. Although President George W. Bush added tens of thousands of airport baggage screeners and other homeland security jobs, he offset much of that increase by limiting hiring at other agencies.

In reversing this trend, Obama would make himself politically vulnerable to charges that he is growing not just the power of government, but also its size. If the outside estimates are realized, Obama could spur a government hiring spree on a scale unseen since President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society agenda in the 1960s.

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