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McCain and Friends: Slash Federal Workforce to Avoid Defense Cuts

February 10, 2013

Last summer, John McCain was asked about his vote for the August 2011 Budget Control Act, a law which starting March 1st will slash defense spending by $500 billion over the next decade. "I plead guilty. It was a bad thing to do, OK?" But now in his latest effort to avoid just the first year of those Pentagon cuts, McCain wants to do something much, much worse. Along with his GOP colleagues Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) and Buck McKeon (R-CA), McCain instead wants to reduce the federal workforce by 10 percent. As it turns out, that move isn't just shortsighted, it's short on logic. Not only are the ranks of federal employees already 10 percent smaller than during the Reagan years, but as a percentage of the U.S. population is near the lowest level in 50 years.

Appearing on Fox News Sunday, Senator McCain proposed a simple formula. McCain, the Wall Street Journal reported, "suggested hiring fewer federal workers, replacing every three that retire with just one." Echoing Mitt Romney's attack on public employees, McCain McKeon, Graham and Ayotte put that planned attrition at the center of their proposal to keep the Pentagon's budget untouched:

The 2013 Down Payment to Protect National Security Act would cut the entire government workforce by 10 percent through attrition at an estimated savings of $85 billion over the next decade. It would replace the sequester for one year: The government will need to trim $85 billion in Defense and non-defense spending in fiscal 2013 if sequestration takes effect on March 1.
The bill would allow federal agencies to hire one person for every three employees who retire or leave their job. The hiring reduction likely would take place over the next four to five years, but the savings would be felt "over the 10-year budget window," according to a Capitol Hill aide.

It's no surprise that the Republican scheme drew howls from federal employee unions. But the American public shouldn't be very happy, either. After all, draconian cuts by state and local governments have already cost 600,000 jobs and overall added at least a full point to the national unemployment rate. And as Ezra Klein explained two years ago, as a percentage of the U.S. population, Uncle Sam's workforce is at the lowest level in generations.
Using the chart above, Klein turned to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to describe the dynamic at work:

The long view is that federal employees are plummeting as a total share of the workforce. "In 1953, there was one Federal worker for every 78 residents. In 1989, there was one Federal employee for every 110 residents. By 2009, the ratio had dropped to one Federal employee for every 147 residents." You can see that in the graph atop this post, which comes from the same report.
The personnel gains that are happening are happening on the "security" side -- which includes, in this data, the Departments of Treasury, State and Justice, in addition to Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense. According to OMB, "Overall, security agency employment grew by 22 percent from 2001 to 2010. During the same period, employment in non-security agencies as a percent of population fell by 4 percent."

As a quick glance at the numbers from the Office of Personnel Management show, total executive branch employment was slightly higher in 2011 under President Obama (2.76 million workers) than in 2008 (2.70 million). But the federal workforce contracted significantly under the Clinton-Gore "reinventing government" initiatives in 1990's, declining its Reagan-Bush peak of almost 3.1 million.

To be sure, the steep budgets required by the 2011 sequestration process need to be undone in order to avoid a painful and unnecessary hit to the U.S. economic recovery. But demonizing federal workers by slashing jobs and continuing the two-year freeze on their pay is no way to do it. While President Obama has called for a 1 percent raise for federal employees, Florida Republican Ron DeSantis introduced legislation zeroing out that increase for the third year in a row. His GOP colleague Frank Wolf (R-VA) was flabbergasted:

"Let's be honest: This bill is nothing more than a political stunt that targets the hardworking, dedicated men and women of the civil service, who have already had their salaries frozen for more than two years. Everyone knows they are an easy target. But we are kidding ourselves if we think we can balance the budget on the backs of federal employees. It's a drop in the bucket towards deficit reduction and a hollow gesture absent meaningful mandatory spending reforms. Worse, this is just busywork as our economy faces the sequestration meat ax."

Or as John McCain might have put it, it's a bad thing to do.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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