Because these office-seekers are competing to faithfully execute the nation’s laws, this might be a good moment for the media to find out what each of them knows (or doesn’t know) about how the federal government actually works. The place to start is with 10 facts about the federal bureaucracy in relation to government spending and government performance.
First, we have had roughly the same number of federal workers for the past 56 years. When John F. Kennedy was elected president in 1960, the executive branch employed about 1.8 million full-time bureaucrats, not counting uniformed military personnel and postal workers — the same number as when George W. Bush was elected president in 2000. When Ronald Reagan was reelected in 1984, there were about 2.2 million federal bureaucrats — nearly 200,000 more than when President Obama was elected in 2008.
Second, the size of the federal workforce has mostly flatlined while federal spending has jumped. In the past 5½ decades, real federal spending (adjusted for inflation) has increased fivefold; five more Cabinet agencies and dozens more sub-Cabinet agencies have been added; and the number of pages in the Federal Register, mirroring the additions to federal rules and regulations, has increased sixfold.
Fourth, the state and local government workforce has ballooned, with the federal government’s help. The federal government spends more than $600 billion a year on grant programs for state and local governments, a tenfold increase, in constant dollars, since 1960. The post-1960 state and local government workforce has tripled to more than 18 million people.
Fifth, the federal government is a heavy user of outsourcing: It has millions of de facto employees at for-profit firms and nonprofit organizations. For example, in addition to its own 800,000 or so full-time civilian employees, the Defense Department has the equivalent of about 700,000 full-time employees at for-profit firms whose jobs are dependent on defense contracts. The 1.4 million nonprofit organizations registered with the IRS have more than $2 trillion in annual revenue, with roughly a third of that money coming from government grants, plus fees for services and goods from government sources.
Sixth, the leaders of these federal administrative proxies — governors, mayors, corrections commissioners, defense contractors, nonprofit executives — lobby incessantly to keep or grow federal programs that their organizations get paid to administer.
Seventh, there is no evidence that outsourcing federal administrative work saves money. For instance, a 2011 study by the Project on Government Oversight estimated that the contractors were paid roughly twice as much as federal workers would have been paid for the same work.
Eighth, the federal government’s worst and most persistent performance problems are concentrated among its most outsourced programs. For example, in his book “Escaping Jurassic Government,” Donald F. Kettl reports that 28 of the 32 federal programs on the Government Accountability Office’s 2015 list of programs at high risk for waste, fraud or abuse involved private contractors and other administrative proxies.
Ninth, the most catastrophic federal government performance failures have occurred when federal agencies had too few full-time workers. For instance, in 2013, the problematic launch of the Affordable Care Act’s health exchanges involved the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services, an agency with fewer than 5,000 full-time employees that is tasked with overseeing about 20 percent of the federal budget while monitoring scores of contractors and grantees.
Tenth, many federal agencies are in crying need of more workers. For instance, by 2025, the Social Security program’s beneficiaries will exceed 85 million people, and the Social Security Administration (SSA) will disburse nearly $1.8 trillion a year. The SSA projects that it could lose a third of its workforce by 2020, when more than 30,000 SSA workers become eligible for retirement. But due to a congressionally mandated hiring freeze, the SSA has been unable to fill positions left open by employee retirements.
So here’s hoping that the next debates, town halls and interviews reveal which, if any, candidates for chief executive understand that the federal government became outsized as it became more outsourced — and that, by every measure, today’s full-time federal workforce is overloaded, not bloated.
John J. DiIulio Jr. is a former director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and author of “Bring Back the Bureaucrats.” Paul R. Verkuil is a former chairman of the Administrative Conference of the United States and author of “Outsourcing Sovereignty.”