It's difficult to calculate true size of civil service

FEDERAL WORKERS

December 07, 2007|By MELISSA HARRIS

I began this column more than two years ago by citing statistics on the size of the federal work force in Baltimore's southern suburbs. It was a way to justify the column's weekly presence as well as readers' attention to it.

But during the past two years, I've learned that the numbers tell us very little about the role federal employees play in the region's economy.

For one, much of the federal work force is hidden, working as contractors inside leased space at nondescript office parks. Second, the state's affluence, expectations for economic growth and high percentage of residents with college degrees can be traced back to these government jobs, their stability and their Cadillac benefits.

That's why local officials and voters need to take threats to these jobs seriously. Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani wants to cut every other federal job vacated by a retiring federal worker. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton wants to reduce the contract work force by 500,000.

"Anyone who wants to cut any part of the true size of government needs to tell us which mission we're going to give up," said Paul C. Light, a professor at the Wagner School of Public Service at New York University and one of the nation's foremost scholars on the civil service. "Of course, there's inefficiencies in the contractor community and government, but I tend to believe that 15 million people is what it takes to deliver the mission."

That mission includes waging wars, recovering from national disasters, maintaining roads, discovering cures for deadly diseases, and providing health insurance to the elderly, poor and disabled.

Thankfully for workers in this region, shrinking government is difficult. Congress tried to cap the size of the civil service as early as the late 1940s. It grew to its largest size, about 2.2 million workers, during the Vietnam War, and shrunk to about 1.8 million employees under Vice President Al Gore's reinventing government initiative.

"It was done with significant defense downsizing," Light said. Gore "didn't want to be known as a tax-and-spend Democrat."

Light said that President Bush inherited a "political" limit of 2 million civil servants, while also trying to wage a new war on terror. As a result, the number of federal contractors has surged.

According to Light, the number of federal contractors grew by about 2.4 million from 2002 to 2005 -- from 5.2 million to 7.6 million. Meanwhile, the civil service grew very little, mostly from the hiring of 50,000 baggage and passenger screeners at the nation's airports.

"The total number is 14.5 million -- that's the true size of government," Light said. "They continue to disguise the true size by offloading jobs into the private sector."

Does that matter? Light says he doesn't know.

"Are contractor jobs a boon to the economy? They're jobs," Light said. "We don't really know what kind of jobs they are. Higher-paying or lower-paying? We're not told that information. Contractors are loath to reveal those numbers. We don't know whether they're getting benefits, whether they're getting decent salaries. We don't know much about them."

And therein lies the problem: accountability. Voters can fire the CEO of the federal government; they can't fire the CEO of Blackwater.

This is the final Federal Workers column. The writer, who is moving to a new reporting assignment at The Sun, would like to thank her readers and sources. She can be reached at melissa.harris @baltsun.com or 410-715-2885.

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