“Today, our freedom is never safe – because unelected, unaccountable regulators are always on the prowl. And under President Obama, they are multiplying. The number of federal employees has grown by almost 150,000 under this president.”
— Mitt Romney, in a speech to the National Rifle Association, April 13, 2012
This number jumped out at us as we read the presumptive Republican nominee’s speech to the NRA. It seems to fit into the Republican narrative of out-of-control growth in government under Obama.
But context is important. Romney’s phrasing suggests that many of these new employees are “unelected, unaccountable regulators.” Is this the case?
The Labor Department and the Office of Personnel Management maintain records on the number of federal employees. The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the federal workforce (minus the Postal Service) was 2.062 million in January 2009, when Obama became president. As of March 2012, the number of federal employees stood at 2.208 million.
That’s a gain of 146,000, or “almost 150,000,” as Romney put it.
Case closed? Not quite. While that single line might be accurate, Romney framed it as an example of an explosion in new regulators. His argument starts to fall apart when you dig deeper into the data.
For instance, the BLS data show that 58,000 of these new employees are in the Defense Department, as the war in Afghanistan ramped up again. An additional gain of 25,000 came in the category of “federal hospitals” — primarily veterans and military hospitals — which also is related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. So that’s at least 83,000 who don’t qualify as “regulators,” leaving Obama with a non-military gain of 63,000.
The Office of Personnel Management database does not provide month-by-month figures — only quarterly — but it does provide agency-by-agency detail. Comparing the September 2008 figures with December 2011 figures, the data show a gain of 80,000 jobs in the Department of Defense. The Veterans Affairs Department — not just the hospitals — added 38,000 people. The Department of Homeland Security added 20,000 jobs — and those positions are more likely to be border control agents than “regulators.”
As for regulators, the Agriculture Department lost 12,000 people and Interior dropped by 4,000. Labor added about 1,000, Energy added 700, Housing and Urban Development gained 400 and Education went up 300. The big gainer among the non-military Cabinet agencies was Health and Human Services, which added 9,000 employees.
The data for independent agencies also show a mixed picture. The Environmental Protection Agency added 400 jobs, the Federal Communications Commission lost 100 and the National Labor Relations Board and Federal Trade Commission were essentially flat.
Finally, how does Obama compare to his predecessor George W. Bush, no lover of big government? When military and federal hospital jobs are excluded from the BLS data, the federal government grew at an annual rate of nearly nine-tenths of a percent under Bush, compared to just under 1 percent under Obama.
In other words, almost exactly the same.
The Romney campaign did not accept our analysis. “The statement Gov. Romney made that the number of ‘federal employees has grown by almost 150,000 under this president’ is indisputably true,” said senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom. “We stand by it.”
The Pinocchio Test
In his phrasing, Romney is being too clever by half. The number of employees may have grown by nearly 150,000 under Obama, but Romney strongly suggests that these are mostly regulators. In fact, the gain largely comes from the military — which Romney has also pledged to boost — and homeland security. The rate of non-military growth in government jobs under Obama is not exceptional at all.
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