The Republican campaign for the presidency has largely focused on the increasing growth and clout of the Federal Government. One major aspect of the GOP’s push for the White House has been the large number of federal employees, and the need to reduce the size of the D.C. bureaucracy. Carly Fiorina, for example, has said that, “When you have a big, bloated bureaucracy that is becoming inept – that’s what’s happening in Washington, D.C. – there are some jobs that have to go away.” Another presidential hopeful, Ted Cruz, has stated that he would cut the IRS, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Energy, the Department of Education, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development completely.
At the same time, many GOP candidates have decried the decreasing power of the U.S. military. Fiorina has said that she would established 50 Army brigades, 36 Marine Corps Battalions, and up to 350 naval ships – including several thousand more troops to be stations in Germany. (Daily Beast defense reporter Kate Brennan found that this would cost $500 billion, not including new nukes, and require a build-up of 100,000 soldiers). Marco Rubio has said that we would reverse policies that are “eviscerating the military.” Other candidates have also discussed the need to better support the military.
These policy views (reducing the government and strengthening the military) are important discussions in their own right. For the GOP candidates that hold both to be essential, it is the connection between the two that may prove tricky.
The first point to note is that of the four (4) million federal employees mentioned in debates, almost 1.5 million of those are uniformed military personnel. If support for the military means not reducing this number, there are then 2.6 million executive branch employees left to examine as part of a bureaucracy reducing initiative.
This is still a very large number, but breaking it down reveals more disconnect between the two stated policy goals. According to the DoD, the Pentagon employs 742,000 civilian workers. Removing this from the sum leaves 1.85 million federal employees. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) employs another 240,000. Removing these leaves 1.61 million federal employees. Doing the same for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) removes another 308,176, reducing the remaining number to 1.31 million. This is not to say that there is not waste to cut out of these three departments, but around half of the non-uniformed federal employees are either working for the DoD, working for DHS, or taking care of veterans. If ramping up the defense and national security apparatus is a vital part of a future Republican president’s policy, they may be left with a relatively small part of the federal employee pie to ‘cut.’
It’s not just the size of the Pentagon and national security employment pool that causes this policy dissonance. The majority of federal government growth since 2004 has come from these departments as well. A Government Accountability Office report in 2014 found that 94% of federal employment hires between 2004 and 2012 occurred within the DoD, DHS, or the VA. When interviewed for the report, the DoD stated that increased need for acquisition and cybersecurity employees was the major driver behind growth. The DHS said that border security requirements were the major driving of its increased employment, and the VA said that its increased staffing was connected to a 22.6 percent increase in veteran demand for health care and an 18.1 percent increase in new veterans.
Of Senator Cruz’s five “must-cut” departments, three have seen reductions in personnel. The IRS’ employment levels peaked in 1991 with 114,628 workers. However, by the end of fiscal year 2014, that number had shrunk to 78,121 employees. (The average cost of collecting $100 dollars also shrunk to the lowest levels since 1980). While the Department of Commerce and Department of Energy did see personnel increases since 2004, the Department of Education and Department of Housing and Urban Development saw on-average decreases in employment.
Efficiency is important, especially during times of tight budgets. It is likely that there are ways of making every federal government agency less wasteful. That being said, 62 percent of the federal workforce in 2012 was tied to defense, veterans, or national security. A president who is serious about reducing the federal workforce is going to have to address these three areas of government employment.
This will require a more nuanced approach than Fiorina’s, “there are some jobs that have to go away.” Job growth in defense, national security, and veterans’ affairs have been tied to skill-gaps in each department. Slashing jobs or allowing large retirement attrition may be a repeat of the post-Cold War drawdown, which created skills gaps that require either the employment of expensive contractors or the return to employment growth. The GAO highlighted this issue in its 2014 report: of the federal employees on payroll in 2012, 30 percent would be eligible to retire in 2017.
Federal employment levels cannot be uncoupled from our national defense and security apparatus, an area of government responsibility that many Republican candidates want to ramp up. Rebalancing to a responsible level of government employment will require addressing both the economic and security ramifications, and in a responsible and thoughtful fashion.