Boehner's comments revive debate on how to tally federal workers

By Ed O'Keefe and Eric Yoder
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, February 17, 2011; B03

House Speaker John A. Boehner's nonchalant reaction Tuesday to the prospect of federal job cuts not only outraged supporters of the federal workforce, but it also demonstrated the difficulty of tracking the number of people receiving government paychecks.

Answering a reporter's question about the potential impact of federal spending cuts, the Ohio Republican said 200,000 federal jobs have been added since President Obama took office. "And if some of those jobs are lost in this, so be it," he said. "We're broke. It's time for us to get serious about how we're spending the nation's money."

Democratic lawmakers pounced almost immediately. The speaker's comments show that "job creation is not the new majority's top priority," said Rep. James P. Moran (D-Va.), whose Northern Virginia district is home to thousands of current and retired federal workers.

"The speaker is ignoring the fact that putting more federal employees out of work will be a significant drag on our economy," Moran said. "If you don't have a job, you won't take your family out to dinner, buy a car when your old one breaks down, or engage in the various activities that aid in our nation's economic recovery."

As an examination of Boehner's figures demonstrates, accounting for federal workers can be done several ways and can vary depending on the source of data and the time frame. In addition, any assessment of federal employment during the first two years of the Obama administration is affected by temporary hires made for the 2010 Census, which caused a surge in employment starting in 2009.

Further complicating the debate, through most of 2009 the government operated under a budget set in the final year of George W. Bush's administration.

According to the speaker's office, Boehner's "200,000" figure comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which said that the government added 153,000 full-time workers between December 2008 - a month before Obama took office - and January 2011. Aides also noted that the government added 400,000 temporary census workers during that period, which contributed to the speaker's tally. (The number of temporary hires peaked at about 585,000 in May 2010, according to the Census Bureau.)

"We think 200,000 is probably generous to the White House," said Boehner spokesman Michael Steel.

If Boehner's tally had started in February 2009 - Obama's first full month in office - the federal workforce, as counted by the BLS, would have grown by 10,000 fewer jobs.

The speaker's figures also don't include the U.S. Postal Service, an independent government agency that employs 585,000 full-time workers and has trimmed its ranks significantly in the past decade.

Although BLS data are generally considered the most reliable measure of private-sector employment, the Office of Personnel Management releases updated figures on the federal workforce every quarter that are based on the number of people receiving government paychecks. (Neither count includes uniformed military personnel.)

The executive branch had 1,945,256 workers in December 2008 and 2,113,980 in September 2010, the most recent figures available, a gain of nearly 169,000, according to OPM's FedScope database.

In contrast, White House budget figures released Monday show that the federal workforce grew from 1.98 million "full-time equivalent" positions in fiscal 2009 to 2.12 million in fiscal 2010, an increase of about 140,000. White House budget figures do not represent a head count. For example, two half-time workers would count as one "full-time equivalent" position.

"It's a tricky thing," said John Palguta, vice president of the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service, who closely tracks the federal workforce.

"There's not one accepted way of coming up with the right number," he said. "You really have to think about what questions you're trying to answer and then look at the numbers in that context."

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