The downside of rolling back the government workforce

By Joe Davidson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 28, 2010; 8:35 PM

During a period when federal employees have been targeted again and again, it's not surprising that House Republicans' "Pledge to America" would promise to freeze the federal workforce.

"We will impose a net hiring freeze on non-security federal employees and ensure that the public sector no longer grows at the expense of the private sector," the document says.

Promoting the plan on NBC's "Meet the Press," Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind), chairman of the House Republican Conference, was clear: "We can reduce government employment back down to 2008 levels."

Federal workers are always an easy target, but it's worth examining whether a freeze would come at the expense of public service.

John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management, said a hiring freeze "would hurt our ability to maintain essential services ... [and] cost taxpayers more than it saves by forcing the government to rely on high-priced contractors."

Republicans say the freeze wouldn't necessarily hit every non-security agency. Instead, the government as a whole would not be able to increase its workforce. "American families are making tough decisions everyday," said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for the House Republican Conference. "Its simply time the federal government does the same."

Still, returning to employment levels in effect at the end of George W. Bush's presidency could mean service backlogs in many government programs.

Take the Social Security Administration for example. It provides payments to retirees, people with disabilities and others. The number of the agency's pending cases and the time it takes to process them has been a serious problem.

Recently, there has been progress as a result of agency hiring.

In March, Social Security Commissioner Michael J. Astrue announced that the number of pending disability cases had dropped by more than 71,000 since December 2008. On top of that, the average processing time for hearing decisions had fallen by 72 days, from a high of 514 in 2008. That improvement in services was possible because the Obama administration and Congress approved staffing increases.

Technology is great, but it takes people to provide public service.

According to SSA: "The agency hired 147 administrative law judges (ALJs) and over 1,000 support staff in [fiscal] 2009, and has plans to hire an additional 226 ALJs this year."

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