Thanks to acrimony over the budget war in Washington, the federal government endured the longest shutdown in its history last month — and then spent most of this past week teetering on the brink of yet another closure. But what does the American public know about the people who carry out the day-to-day functions of their government? A number of myths persist about the federal workforce. Here are a few.
Are the people who dedicate their professional lives to public service in it for the money? “The federal government pays its employees more than they would earn in the private sector,” the Heritage Foundation contends. Last year, a group called American Transparency sought to shock observers with its finding that “there is a new ‘minimum wage’ for federal bureaucrats — at 78 departments and independent agencies, the average employee made $100,000 or more.” Former congressman Dennis Ross (R-Fla.) once opposed raising pay for this workforce by arguing, “Our taxpayers can no longer be asked to foot the bill for these federal employees while watching their own salaries remain flat and their benefits erode.”
But these are misleading figures, and the groups that purvey them often overlook some important facts: Salary comparisons aren’t useful because “federal workers tend to be older, more educated, and more concentrated in professional occupations than private-sector workers,” according to the Congressional Budget Office. There are also comparatively few part-time workers in the government. Some federal employees make more, and some make less, than private-sector workers, but when comparing apples to apples, only federal employees with just a high school diploma make more than their private-sector counterparts, while professionals with advanced degrees usually make less, according to the CBO. This may bode well for Ross: He traded in his congressional salary for one as a lobbyist at one of Florida’s top-earning law firms.
“For many Americans, the idea of a ‘government shutdown’ brings to mind empty desks and hardship in Washington, D.C.,” began a recent NBC News report. The mistaken assumption that most federal employees live and work in the nation’s capital gets a boost from the common political shorthand decrying civil servants as out of touch: Officials such as former House speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) have bemoaned “unelected bureaucrats in Washington.” “Imagine regulators having to rub elbows with the people being regulated,” noted one pundit. “There’s a lot of wisdom outside the Washington bubble.”
In reality, the vast majority of federal workers are based outside the D.C. area. In a piece surveying major hubs for this workforce, The Washington Post explained that “only about 1 in 6 of the 1.87 million civilian full-time federal employees live in the Washington, D.C. metro area.” Federal News Network recently highlighted Texas as home to a large federal worker population, adding that “more federal employees work in California, for example, than the District of Columbia, Virginia or Maryland.”
President Trump kicked off his administration with a hiring freeze. He said he did not want to fill a number of vacant positions and insisted, “You don’t need all of those people.” His initial efforts prompted headlines like this one in the Daily Wire: “Donald Trump Is Shrinking The Government. Everything Else Is Noise,” along with a breathless pronouncement from Forbes that “what we are watching is the final throes of the end of the era of Big Government.”
But there’s scant evidence to support these assertions. According to Paul Light, an expert on the federal workforce, the number of federal jobs has remained relatively constant over the past several decades. (As the U.S. population has grown — and, with it, the number of jobs — government employees have gradually become a smaller percentage of the nation’s workforce.) Reported changes during the Trump administration don’t appear to reverse this trend significantly, with a minor reduction of fewer than 16,000 civilian positions (out of nearly 2.1 million) in 2017 and a minor increase of 10,000 uniformed personnel (out of 1.3 million) in 2018. Trump’s own 2019 budget proposal would have slightly increased the federal workforce if Congress had passed it.
In one way, the government’s workforce has grown, thanks largely to privatization: Although the CBO says their precise number can’t be calculated, the ranks of government contractors have grown explosively. The Congressional Research Service says the government committed more than a half-trillion dollars for contracts in 2017, and The Post notes that services (which include employment) make up 80 percent of federal contract dollars. According to Light, the number of contractors more than doubled between 1999 and 2010.
Some say privatizing government yields better value for our tax dollars. Last year, Trump unsuccessfully floated privatizing the Postal Service. “It is no longer appropriate to avoid having foundational discussions about services that might be better served by direct State, local, or even private-sector stewardship,” said a report from the Office of Management and Budget. In early 2017, Government Executive, a trade publication, suggested that Republican members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee “believe work can be done cheaper in the private sector.”
Not so fast. In April 2017, the Defense Department advised Congress that its study of the issue revealed “no . . . evidence to suggest that DoD civilians predominantly have higher or lower fully burdened costs to the government than contractors do.” And profits are factored into the cost of contractor services: Defense contractor General Dynamics paid its CEO $21.2 million in 2017 — over 100 times more than Uncle Sam paid former defense secretary Jim Mattis. The Project on Government Oversight says that “the government pays billions more annually in taxpayer dollars to hire contractors than it would to hire federal employees to perform comparable services.”
At any rate, certain inherently governmental functions should never be outsourced. A piece in the Harvard Business Review posited that “the key question” when considering privatization of government services is “under what conditions will managers be more likely to act in the public’s interest.” Making this case are examples like the horrors of private prisons, inadequate protection of human rights by contractors running immigrant detention centers and defense contractors sanctioned for human trafficking.
fire a federal worker.
“Holding federal employees accountable is essentially impossible,” according to the Heritage Foundation. And Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-Ga.) has complained that “firing bad civil service employees is close to impossible nowadays.”
There’s no disputing that it’s harder to fire federal workers than those in the private sector, but that’s because private-sector workers have few rights. Most federal employees can file appeals if they are fired. This due-process protection guards against a return to the spoils system that let political patrons dole out jobs at the expense of government integrity. Removing that protection might deter whistleblowers from exposing government corruption and waste.
Still, statistics show that management usually wins on appeal. In 2016, the board that hears most of these cases upheld more than 80 percent of the disciplinary actions it adjudicated — which doesn’t even include feds who resigned or either dropped or settled their cases. The reality is that federal employees are fired all the time.