The Public Service

June 1, 1999

As the year 2000 presidential campaign heats up, hopefuls in both parties appear ready to engage in a bidding war to see just how small the federal government can get. The word around Washington is that Vice President Al Gore will soon ask for the buyout authority to implement a second round of 300,000 job cuts, pushing federal employment to pre-Korean War levels of less than 1.5 million. If Gore does not make the proposal, George W. Bush, or one of the other Republican presidential hopefuls, almost certainly will.

The proposal is easy to make if only because the federal bureaucracy is already well on its way toward the target. Federal employment has shrunk by nearly 100,000 jobs since the Clinton administration’s first 300,000 cuts ended in 1997. The Defense Department is planning to cut as many as 150,000 civilian jobs over the next five years in another round of base closures. All Gore needs to honor his promise is to find another 50,000 jobs among the 1 million civil servants who work outside DoD. With Justice protected in its crime-fighting role, Gore would likely take the Weed Eater to Agriculture, Interior, Transportation and General Services Administration jobs, which together account for nearly a third of the non-Defense workforce.

Gore’s office will not confirm the rumored announcement, but there is no doubt that another round of cuts would toughen the Vice President’s image as he prepares for the 2000 campaign. Unlike Vice President George Bush in 1988, who had virtually nothing to tout as a contribution to the Reagan presidency, Gore can claim sole credit for the reinventing government campaign. Unfortunately, improving courtesy at the Social Security Administration, which won a national award for its 800-telephone service, or cutting red tape at the Food and Drug Administration, which won a Ford Foundation innovation award for streamlining the drug approval process, is just plain boring?Gore’s greatest weakness. Reinventing government only sizzles when it promises to reduce fraud, waste and abuse. At least in this administration, reinvention has meant cutting government employment, not programs.

Gore faces two problems in making another downsizing promise. The first is that Republicans will almost surely outbid him. Once Gore begins the bidding, he may soon find himself presiding over the wholesale dismantling of the public service he has fought to empower. If Gore bids a 300,000 cut, perhaps Bush will bid 600,000. There is no limit to the downsizing as long as the federal government can still contract out.

Gore’s second problem comes in meeting the public demand for virtually everything that the federal government delivers. The public does not want a government that works better and costs less, but one that looks smaller and delivers more. Forced to cut jobs while delivering a growing mission, the federal government has done what comes naturally: push jobs outward to a shadow workforce of 8 million contractors. No one knows just how many of the next 300,000 jobs cut would simply move to the shadow.

If the past is a clue, the number could be substantial. Although the shadow of government is at least 400,000 employees smaller today than it was in 1993, most of the reductions came from declining Defense purchases. Subtract those purchases from the estimated shadow workforce, and the number of contractors and grantees is increasing. In non-Defense agencies, for example, the number of employees who worked for government under service contracts grew to 1.7 million by the end of 1996, up by nearly 200,000 jobs since Gore’s inauguration.

Instead of opening a bidding war that will almost certainly lead to a longer federal shadow, Gore would be well advised to impose a moratorium on further downsizing. Congress and the President still have plenty of work to do in reshaping the bureaucracy to protect core competencies and make room for new blood, but the cuts have gone deep enough. Any buyout authority should be headcount-neutral, meaning that total federal employment would remain steady even as jobs are changed to flatten out the hierarchy. (Memo to Congress: cutting 1,000 political appointees would save $200 million, enough money to cover 10,000 senior-level buyouts. The total of 11,000 departures would produce a much slimmer, more accountable federal bureaucracy, provided that each job was abolished when its occupant left, not merely filled by the next promotion-hungry official in line.)

The federal government is not only losing the competition for talented college graduates in general, it is not even winning the competition among students at the nation’s leading schools of public policy and administration who are now choosing jobs in the private and nonprofit sectors, in part because they believe government no longer offers challenging work and the opportunity to move up.

By refusing to open the bidding, Gore could end the downsizing war before it starts. It is a war the Republicans will never let him win, but, more important, one the public service cannot endure.