Darrell Issa has jumped into the deficit debate, proposing a 10-percent cut, through attrition, in the number of federal employees. (Tim Sloan)

The bill uses a classic blunt ax to achieve a disingenuous "reshaping" of the federal workforce, and would be better titled the Eviscerating the Faithful Execution of the Laws Act. Having set its target for an overall cut, the bill would order federal agencies to hire just one new employee for every three that leave through retirement or separation. 

The bill is flawed in at least three respects.

First, Issa's proposal requires implementation on an agency-by-agency basis. Although the bill does allow the president to certify that a given job affects performance of a "critical mission," it is entirely possible (indeed probable) that the cuts would weaken the government's ability to regulate the banking industry, protect the environment, guarantee food and drug safety, conduct disability reviews, monitor the borders, collect intelligence or continue, let alone start, needed research studies. 

"Critical mission" is never defined, and would no doubt quickly become a contentious issue and an opportunity for congressional grandstanding, even as it drowns the president in paperwork. Nor is there any exemption for jobs that will soon fit the new criteria established under Sen. Mark Warner's (D-Va.) Government Performance and Results Modernization Act, which finally demands that the federal government declare its top strategic priorities.

Second, Issa's proposal does not distinguish between types of jobs. Issa should have taken this opportunity to make the case that the federal hierarchy needs a long overdue reduction in the number of managers and the layers they occupy. Many are no doubt essential for making regulations; but many are also engaged in less-than-essential oversight.  The bill has no provision for targeting the cuts to distinguish between the two. It should have taken aim at the excess layers, making government more effective by reducing the distance between the top and bottom of the hierarchy.

Third and finally, the act fails to address the very real shortages on the frontlines of government. All turnovers are not equal. Although the federal government's 6-percent separation rate is slightly lower than the private sector, it does not fall equally down the hierarchy. According to recent data from the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service, the bill would almost certainly hit new hires hard, most of whom are directly – and crucially – involved in implementing the laws on security and passport violations, shoddy oil drilling, dangerous food processing plants, Medicare fraud and a host of other agreed-upon goals of recent legislation.

Issa's proposal would wreak havoc on new hires, a group the government is already trying desperately to keep hold of; 69 percent leave within the first five years of service, and 22 percent within the first year. Anyone who has been through airport security lines on a Saturday and Sunday know what happens when only three or four frontline screeners and passport inspectors handle hundreds of international travelers. 

Attrition-based downsizing has been tried before, most notably during the Clinton administration's effort to cut more than 400,000 jobs from the federal workforce. Although many of the cuts were already in the pipeline under the post-Cold War defense downsizing, anecdotal evidence shows increased contracting out and a broad weakening of the federal frontlines. 

Issa should reconsider his strategy. The 10-percent cut is both arbitrary and damaging, while the one-to-three ratio is unsophisticated and hardly an exercise in thoughtful and long overdue reshaping.  Reshaping is intensely necessary, and should be done with deliberation and great care. This is not the time for a blunt axe but a laser focus.  Staffing the frontlines of government, while at the same time de-layering the hierarchy, might not save a single job. But what it would do is produce better government.

And if the goal is to save real money, replacing high-cost management and senior-level posts with lower-cost frontline posts would save plenty. With nearly 30 percent of federal baby boomers now eligible for retirement, Congress and the president would do well to subject each vacancy to a careful review. If it is no longer fully essential, it should be cut. If it plays a substantial role in creating high-performance government, it should be filled.  If the private sector rule of thumb holds, half the jobs would be eliminated.

Issa should shelve his bill and draft a much more nuanced approach, one that drops the one-to-three ratio. This is no time to weaken the federal government's ability to honor the promises Congress and the president make.

Related reading:

Is it doomsday for a debt compromise?

Fixing the presidential appointments process

Boehner’s offer to Obama on U.S. debt

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