Cutting the Federal Workforce

The federal government is big. That is something about which few people of whatever political stripe would disagree. Excluding members of the armed services (but including Postal Service workers), there are about 2.7 million federal employees—as many people as live in Chicago.

Yet, as the Wall Street Journal reports, this is the smallest number since 1966, and the federal government represents the only job sector to decrease in 2014—one reason, as we noted last week, that President Obama’s FY 2016 budget includes provisions to hire another 34,000 employees.

For some in Congress, however, that 2.7 million count is still far too large. Last month, Cynthia Lummis, a Republican U.S. Representative from Wyoming, joined with Mick Mulvaney, a colleague from South Carolina, to introduce a bill entitled the Federal Workforce Reduction Through Attrition Act. It demands that the federal workforce be reduced by 10 percent by September 30, 2016. As the Congressional abstract states, it “requires that compliance with such workforce limitation be made through attrition, or through both attrition and a freeze on appointments if the total number of federal employees exceeds the applicable maximum for a quarter.” It also requires that the Office of Management and Budget certify that this requirement has been met, though at the same time it allows the President to waive the limitation as necessary in “(1) a state of war or for reasons of national security; or (2) an extraordinary emergency threatening life, health, safety, or property.”

Lummis adds in a statement, “Instead of blindly filling empty desks, this bill forces agencies to take a step back, consider which positions are crucial, and make decisions based on necessity rather than luxury.” Her bill also requires that contractor jobs be cut in proportion to workforce reductions, presumably to avoid a kind of stealth, under-the-radar restaffing to make up for lost positions.

Whether any federal agency operates on a basis of luxury is a subject for debate, but this is not the first time that Lummis’s bill has been aired. Under the same title, she proposed it early in the 113th Congress—and two years ago, in February 2013, her colleagues referred it to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, where it quietly languished and then expired.

Mulvaney, too, has introduced similar bills, including HR 3029 in 2011, which would have directed agencies to hire only one new employee for every three who retired or left government service. That was but one of a dozen federal-workforce-reduction acts before the 112th Congress, most aiming at a 10 percent reduction. None survived committee. Nonetheless, a report issued in that year from the office of Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), “$1.4 Trillion in Savings,” has remained influential—and now that Johnson heads the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which oversees the federal workforce, proposals to make further cuts are likely to find a sympathetic ear.

Indeed, Lummis and Mulvaney’s latest effort arises in a time of increased antifederal sentiment on the Hill. At the same time that Lummis reintroduced it before the 114th Congress, a Republican colleague, Ken Calvert of California, introduced a bill that would cut the civilian defense workforce by 15 percent by 2023. Calvert argues that cuts in the civilian workforce should mirror those suffered by the military side of the Department of Defense, though he has not specified whether they would be accomplished principally by attrition or instead by layoffs.

How far both bills will travel in the 114th Congress remains to be seen. But critics of the proposed reduction, noting the historically low level of federal employment and the added burden it would place on already beleaguered agencies, have been quick to voice their opposition to the Federal Workforce Reduction Through Attrition Act. Said J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, “If Reps. Lummis and Mulvaney believe the federal government can afford to lose another 200,000 employees in the span of a single year, then they should explain to the American public where they think these cuts should occur and what services they think we can do without.”

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