PRESIDENT REAGAN occasionally slides into Jimmy Carter's bad habit of grumbling about Washington as though it were the hostile headquarters of an army of occupation. There, according to the Carter-Reagan accusation, sits smug Washington fattening itself on the hard-earned dollars of the rest of the population.
Isn't it a bit demeaning for men in that office to keep complaining about the government over which they preside? Mr. Reagan got onto the subject again this week in his budget speech. Working his way around the disagreeable fact that the deficit is now twice as large as when he took office, he said: "And so much of what we spend goes not to the individuals needing help, but to thousands upon thousands of bureaucrats, researchers, planners, managers and professional advocates -- who earn their living from the great growth industry of Govenrment. It is no accident that some of the wealthiest communities in America are the communities surrounding the federal government in Washington, D.C."
Nor is it an accident that some of the wealthiest communities in America are in -- for example -- California, for very similar reasons. If you rank the states by their shares of federal civilian payroll, you will find that California comes first. In 1983, the last year for which the figures have been published, people living in California earned $8.3 billion from federal employment, in the District of Columbia, $6.3 billion; in Virginia, $4.7 billion; in Texas, $4.3 billion and in Maryland, $3.9 billion. They are the top five -- a list that includes the capital, its two neighboring states, and by an interesting coincidence, the two states from which respectively the president and the vice president come.
As for the Washington metropolitan area, it's incorrect to say that government is a "great growth industry." In its report last month on the local economy, the Council of Governments pointed out that private employment grew by 127,000 jobs between 1980 and 1984, while federal employment fell by 10,800 jobs. The federal government is certainly the area's largest employer, and a larger presence than in any other big American city. But it's no longer quite so dominant as it once was. While federal jobs were 23 percent of total metropolitan employment in 1980, they were down to 21 percent in 1984. That's not a huge difference -- but it's the opposite of growth. The White House could reply that these figures do not include the employes of federal contractors. That's true enough. But the great growth in that category has been in and around the defense industry, in which Washington is hardly the leader.
The people who live and work in Washington take pride intheir city and its contributions to their country. It's a pity that Mr. Reagan, like Mr. Carter, does not seem to share that pride.