What is the right size of the federal government?

A House subcommittee will examine that question Thursday morning as it considers proposals to limit the size of the federal workforce.

Several plans to cut the workforce have been pushed by congressional Republicans and the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform as a means to improve the nation’s finances.

The House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on federal workforce, U.S. Postal Service and labor policy has scheduled testimony from two members of Congress who will explain their plans to cut the number of federal employees. The panel members also will hear from a federal union leader whose prepared testimony says even the title of the hearing, “Rightsizing the Federal Workforce,” implies it is too big.

In testimony submitted in advance to the panel, Rep. Cynthia M. Lummis (R-Wyo.) said her legislation would cut the number through attrition, allowing the government to hire only one new employee for every two who leave federal service.

“This notion of attrition has been replicated by the House Republican Budget Resolution, which assumes a more aggressive 3 to 1 replacement rate, and the President’s deficit commission, which called for a less aggressive 3 to 2 replacement rate,” she said.

“I prefer the attrition approach to a rigid hiring freeze. My goal is not just to reduce the size of the federal workforce; I want our agency heads to be more efficient and better at prioritizing their resources. They should be afforded some measure of hiring flexibility, and attrition provides them that flexibility. Additionally, an attrition policy will reduce the workforce without forcing any dedicated civil servants out of the jobs they have now.”

Rep. Tom Marino’s (R-Pa.) legislation would freeze federal hiring until the nation’s deficit has been eliminated.

“The bill contains specific limited exceptions in which hiring is permitted,” his statement says, “such as:

• times when our nation is at war;

• vital national security interests;

• federal law enforcement purposes;

• to honor prior contractual obligations;

• reassignment of personnel within agencies to fill needed positions;

• positions to facilitate the orderly transition and operation of a new Presidential administration; and

• the U.S. Postal Service.”

A former U.S. attorney, Marino said his “legislation is in no way an attack on federal employees or the work that they do. I have the utmost respect for the federal workforce.”

But federal employees don’t see it that way. One reason is that reducing the size of the workforce doesn’t necessarily mean there will be a reduction in the size of government, William R. Dougan, national president of the National Federation of Federal Employees and chairman of the Federal Workers Alliance, said in his prepared statement.

“In fact, in most cases, reducing an agency’s workforce without a corresponding reduction in the agency’s mandate actually increases the size of government,” he said. “How is that possible? Reductions in staffing force agencies to contract-out work, which generally costs taxpayers more than simply maintaining the in-house federal workforce. In the end, there are generally no actual savings derived from arbitrary staff reductions; rather a cost-shift moves resources away from the federal workforce to contractors.”