The Washington Post

Obama government shrinking after period of rapid growth

Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), at a rally for the National Treasury Employees Union. (Courtesy of NTEU).

Is the federal government too large or too small? It’s a debate that never seems to fade.

During the 2012 presidential election, Republican candidate Mitt Romney called for reducing the size of the federal workforce by 10 percent, saying the move would improve government efficiency. Public-employee unions have opposed such efforts, saying the government needs more employees to deal with population growth and increasing demand for services and enforcement.

So, how big is the federal government today?

After a period of rapid growth during President Obama’s first term, the federal workforce is larger than it ever was under President George W. Bush. But it has shrunk in recent years, and further declines are likely in the future.

According to the latest data from the Office of Personnel Management, about 158,000 employees — excluding military and Postal Service personnel — have joined the federal workforce during Obama’s time in the White House, representing a 9.4 percent increase.

By comparison, the overall economy added 4.5 million jobs over the same period, representing a 3.3 percent increase, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

As you can see, federal agencies added jobs at a faster rate than the overall economy during the early part of Obama’s tenure. But the opposite is true now, with the government losing workers while the overall economy adds jobs.

The government shed 26,000 employees between 2011 and 2013, representing a 1.4 percent decrease. Meanwhile, the number of U.S. jobs increased by 6.7 million, or 5 percent, over the same period.

The overall economy looks to be in good shape for the near future, after adding another 217,000 jobs in May for 45 consecutive months of growth. But the federal government is expected to continue shrinking, with BLS projecting that the size of the workforce will drop by another 13 percent over the next nine years.

Of course, federal employment numbers mean little outside the context of population growth. Public-employee unions such as the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Treasury Employees Union contend that the worker-to-population ratio is the most important figure to consider when determining whether the government is staffed at an appropriate level.

As the graph below shows, the number of federal employees per 1,000 Americans has decreased in recent years, but it remains at a higher level than ever during the Bush years. In 2005, there were about 5.5 federal workers for every 1,000 Americans, compared to roughly 5.8 per 1,000 in 2013, according to OPM data.

Josh Hicks covers Maryland politics and government. He previously anchored the Post’s Federal Eye blog, focusing on federal accountability and workforce issues.



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Josh Hicks · July 2, 2014

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