Blackwater may be tip of the iceberg

October 12, 2007|By Paul Weinstein Jr. and Marc Dunkelman

Capitol Hill is abuzz over allegations of vigilantism and recklessness by U.S. contractors in Iraq. But reports that Blackwater USA has operated outside the law could turn out to be a window into a much larger Bush administration scandal.

Largely unnoticed over the last seven years, President Bush has increased the number of contractors working for the federal government at an unprecedented rate. And as the Blackwater debacle shows, the federal government is not equipped or prepared to exercise proper oversight over this vastly expanded, federally empowered work force.

Under President Bush, 2.4 million contractors have been added to the federal payroll. As a result, there are now more than three times as many contractors working for the federal government - about 7.7 million - than the total number of military personnel and civil servants combined.

Republicans used to be the party of fiscal responsibility. They've long been against expanding the federal work force, concerned that bureaucrats did little but suck up taxpayer dollars.

They had a point: The federal government should be streamlined, and wasteful bureaucracy should be eliminated.

But rather than work to reduce the number of people receiving taxpayer-funded paychecks, the Bush administration chose to add to the work force in a way few would notice.

The result is the opposite of what any fiscal conservative would have wanted: American taxpayers are now shelling out more money for the largest government in our history.

What has driven this growth in contract positions? A large reason for the increase is the war on terror. Of the total 2.4 million increase, 75 percent, or 1.8 million, are defense-related positions. In addition, the Bush administration's "competitive sourcing" initiative has emphasized shifting civilian government positions to private contractors in the name of savings. Unfortunately, it is difficult to assess whether any savings have been derived from the initiative because there is no adequate accounting for the number of consultants, how much they typically cost, and what tasks they are fulfilling.

More clear, in light of the Blackwater scandal, is that the federal government is not even equipped to keep track of what its contract employees are doing, let alone whether taxpayers are getting value for their dollar.

As recent reports have revealed, Blackwater often takes former federal employees - trained at taxpayer expense - employs them at salaries well above the rates paid by the federal government, and then sells those services back to the federal government for many times the cost of doing the job in-house.

That's like a school district hiring taxi drivers to pick kids up and drive them home when a school bus route runs right past their door.

Worse, the Bush administration has not devised a way to keep track of the number of contract employees hired, or of how effectively they are being put to work.

We can certainly hope that Blackwater-type problems are confined to that company. And we can pray that taxpayer dollars are not being wasted by the millions of other contractors hired by the administration.

But we ought to know the facts. And the Bush administration's success in turning the projected $5 trillion surplus it inherited into a $2.8 trillion deficit will make many of us skeptical.

Republicans once could boast that they were the party of fiscal responsibility, but no longer. The Blackwater scandal offers us a window on how they have managed to squander taxpayer dollars at an astonishing rate.

Rep. Henry A. Waxman, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, should be lauded for looking into this issue. We can only hope that under the California Democrat's watchful eye, taxpayers will receive the value they deserve for the checks they write to Uncle Sam.

Paul Weinstein Jr. is chief operating officer of the Progressive Policy Institute. His e-mail is pweinstein@ppionline.org. Marc Dunkelman is director of the Democratic Leadership Council's "Ideas Primary." His e-mail is mdunkelman@dlc.org.

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