Smaller Government? Sure, And We’ve Got a Bridge…

October 20, 2000

George W. Bush and Al Gore spent much of Tuesday’s presidential debate claiming to be the candidate of smaller government. Bush argued that Gore’s promises will add thousands of new bureaucrats to the federal work force, while Gore claimed that his “reinventing government” campaign pared the size of government by 300,000 jobs to its smallest level since 1960. It hardly seems to matter that state government employment has grown under Bush in Texas, or that the majority of Gore’s 300,000 jobs came from the massive post-Cold War downsizing at the Defense and Energy departments.

It turns out, however, that both candidates have been making labor-intensive promises that would require more federal employees, mostly in the “off budget” federal work force created by federal contracts, grants and mandates to state and local governments. But whether “on budget” in the civil service or “off budget” in the contract, grantee or mandate work force, the real federal work force would grow under both presidents.

That real work force is already substantial, topping 12.2 million full-time equivalent employees in 1999. Add in the estimated 4.7 million state and local government employees who worked under federal mandates, and the true size of the federal government last year was 17 million, or more than eight times the number of civil servants that so concern Bush and Gore.

The number is sure to grow under either man’s presidency, whether through mandates for yearly testing under Bush’s educational reforms or contracts for new weapons systems under Gore’s defense buildup. The jobs may not show up in the civil service head count, but they are federal jobs nonetheless.

If Gore and Bush want to have a real debate about the future of government, they should start by accepting four facts about today’s federal work force:

First, absent radical changes in what the federal government does, it is hard to imagine further cuts in the total number of employees who must do the work. Congress and the president can move the bodies from one category to another, from contracts to grants, civil servants to consultants, but somebody has to honor the promises government has made.

Second, the Cold War downsizing is all but over. From 1990 to 1999, more than 2.2 million civilian, military, contractor and grantee jobs were sliced from the Defense and Energy departments. Subtract those cuts from the analysis, and the non-Defense, non-Energy federal work force actually increased over the past 10 years.

Third, despite all the rhetoric about smaller government, most federal agencies actually grew during the 1990s. The Department of Transportation work force grew by more than 200,000 employees since the early 1990s, largely fueled by pork barrel projects embedded in the huge highway bills of 1991 and 1998, while the Department of Justice added nearly 120,000 jobs, mostly because of expanded crime fighting and immigration control.

Fourth, the federal government is becoming more, not less, dependent on its nearly 4 million service contractors to keep its customers happy, answer its area-code-800 phone lines, program its computers, manage its military bases or conduct its financial audits. It is hard to imagine how Bush or Gore could reverse the course, particularly given the federal government’s sluggish response to the talent war for entry-level workers.

This new math of federal employment raises important questions for the two candidates, not the least of which is how to manage a contract and grantee work force with a dwindling, under-trained procurement work force. But the only way to engage the debate is to abandon the fuzzy math that has governed campaigns for the better part of half a century. Having convinced the American public that they can have a vast federal mission with but a handful of civil servants, candidates would have to start telling the truth about the shadow work force, which is why denying the true size government appears to be a prerequisite for the presidency these days.

The writer is director of the Brookings Center for Public Service and a contributing editor at Government Executive magazine.