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Posted at 10:25 AM ET, 02/16/2011

John Boehner's funny numbers

By Ezra Klein


John Boehner is getting a lot of attention, little of it positive, for saying, "Over the last two years since President Obama has taken office, the federal government has added 200,000 new federal jobs. And if some of those jobs are lost in this, so be it. We're broke."

It's the let-them-eat-cake nature of the "so be it" that's attracted the most criticism. But where is Boehner getting his numbers? The normal way to count federal employees is to use the Bureau of Labor Statistics' seasonally adjusted data. But it pegs the difference in federal employees between January 2009 and January 2011 at 58,000. That's nowhere near 200,000.

An e-mail to John Boehner's office got me a bit closer. Michael Steel, his spokesman, directed me to "Federal Government Employees, Except U.S. Postal Service. December 2008 - January 2011." If you use that data, you get 153,000 more federal employees. But why are we excluding postal service workers? And why are we starting in December 2008, before Obama was inaugurated (if you start in January 2009, the difference is 141,000 workers)? And 153,000, of course, is still not 200,000.

Steel goes on to note that "they" meaning the Obama administration -- "created another 400K gov’t Census jobs, so the total is actually more than twice what Boehner said." But those jobs are gone now, and they have been for some time. And it's not as if Obama created the Census: That's a constitutional duty. President John McCain would've had to hire those workers, too. And the administration actually worked to hold hiring for the census down -- perhaps to the detriment of the labor market.

So I've yet to hear a defense of Boehner's numbers that's even remotely convincing. But looking into all this left me curious about the 58,000 new federal workers that were added,. I couldn't find agency-by-agency data for the period between Obama's inauguration and Boehner's comments, but I did find this OMB document (pdf) that shed some light on the question: 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." And that trend was slated to continue in the coming years: "Seventy percent of the proposed increase in the size of the 2012 Federal workforce occurs in five agencies – the Department of Defense, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, and the Department of State."

So the jobs that Boehner is deriding are, broadly speaking, jobs related to the military and homeland security, with perhaps a few more in the Justice and State departments. But the money Boehner is cutting from the government -- which is what his comment is in reference to -- comes from non-security discretionary spending.* So the new jobs are coming in the part of the budget Boehner is protecting, not the part he's cutting.

For all that, I'm very open to the idea that the Department of Homeland Security is bloated, and that the size of our military could be cut. But as the non-security focus of Boehner's budget cuts suggests, those are more controversial propositions, and in any case, they deserve a more serious and specific analysis than the funny numbers and misleading rationales Boehner is offering. If the speaker of the House thinks we should have a smaller army, that's an interesting and valuable debate to have. But as it is, his numbers don't add up, and the new federal jobs he's using as the rationale for his cuts are in the parts of the government Boehner has exempted from fiscal scrutiny.

Update: Steel clarifies that there are some security-related cuts in the Republican bill. But he wasn't able to say how many, or whether security spending, like non-security spending, would be cut overall. He also noted that the open amendment process has made room for various amendments that would cut defense spending to come up for a vote.

By Ezra Klein  | February 16, 2011; 10:25 AM ET
Categories:  Government  
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It's really interesting to bring up the post office.

The USPS is going bankrupt thanks to their union, and its leaders are warning of default.

They would have a positive net income, but they are getting crushed by retiree health benefits and pensions.

Posted by: krazen1211 | February 16, 2011 10:40 AM | Report abuse

Why are you bothering, Ezra? Nuance is lost on frightened, rage-filled minds more interested in taking their peers down a peg or two than addressing the people stoking their anger. They have no interest in paying attention to the men behind the curtain.

Posted by: arm3 | February 16, 2011 10:40 AM | Report abuse

There has been an increase in some jobs at the Food and Drug Administration to review new medical products. These jobs are paid for by industry user fees so even though they are a part of the Federal budget, the funds don't come directly from taxpayers.

That being said the number of jobs here are in the 100s and don't address the Boehner jobs number.

Posted by: agoldhammer | February 16, 2011 10:40 AM | Report abuse

Good job here Ezra, excellent post.

I just hope your own newspaper and Media picks up on this one. Equally, Dems and President need to talk about this one publicly.

One by one, each of these lies circulating in the political debate have to be faced head on and this post does that for one such lie - that Obama is presiding on Fed workforce expansion.

Excellent and thank you.

Posted by: umesh409 | February 16, 2011 10:49 AM | Report abuse

Boehner's point, here, was to provide a talking point for radio hosts and their listeners to use while yelling at their wives and children about how much they hate Obama. "Expanding the federal workforce by 200,000 people" sounds like a pretty big number. Sounds scary. Doesn't matter if it's true-- doesn't need to be.

By my count you spent *8 paragraphs* writing about your befuddlement regarding, "how did Boehner come up with this?" Why not just say, "obviously he is lying because he thought this would make a compelling talking point to poison the public discourse with" ?

Posted by: constans | February 16, 2011 10:56 AM | Report abuse

"An e-mail to John Boehner's office got me a bit closer. Michael Steel, his spokesman, directed me to "Federal Government Employees, Except U.S. Postal Service. December 2008 - January 2011."

Really? He excluded postal workers from the count of federal employees, started the analysis a month early, and then rounded up to the nearest one hundred thousand?

Posted by: justin84 | February 16, 2011 11:05 AM | Report abuse

Hey, Ezra, why not tell Dana Milbank? He had a whole Op-Ed today attacking Boehner's comment but ACCEPTING his damn numbers.

Posted by: Theophylact | February 16, 2011 11:33 AM | Report abuse

Does the chart (11-1) above reflect private contractors? It does look like most of the per capita change comes post 1980, when at least some federal services were "privatized".

If government contractors are not included in the graph, would adding them change the numbers enough to significantly alter the federal employees per capita?

Posted by: MaxWL | February 16, 2011 11:45 AM | Report abuse

Our current military budget is more than $700 billion, the facts point to one of two conclusions: 1. If our risk of being attacked by the rest of the world justifies spending as much as the rest of the world combined, our policies, must be very wrong and changing them to reduce the risk to that of the top two or three combined, is our most urgent priority. 2. If we were to reduce our expenditures to a much lower level we could expect that others would consider us less of a threat and reduce their expenditures as well, leaving us with a comfortable margin. We appear to be the threat they are arming against.

There is one other possibility that no one would want too contemplate and that is this our military is so incompetent or our weapon systems so poor that we have to spend at these levels to equal they capabilities of potential threats. We are wasting most of the money (corruption?).

Why does no one look at the budget problem in this way? Ratcheting down to a paltry $2-300 billion/yr would substantially solve our budget problem, wouldn't it?

We spend more on Intelligence than any other country spends on their military. Does this make sense, when CNN seems to know more than the CIA?

The GOP under Bush tried to outsource almost ALL government jobs including much of the military (More mercenaries in Iraq and Afghanistan that troops. More CIA contractors than employees.)

You do great work.

Country Military expenditure, 2009[2] % of GDP, 2008
1 United States 663,255,000,000 4.3%
2 China 98,800,000,000 2.0%
3 United Kingdom 69,271,000,000 2.5%
4 France 67,316,000,000 2.3%
5 Russian Federation 61,000,000,000 3.5%

Posted by: ronames | February 16, 2011 11:54 AM | Report abuse

Good for you for doing the math, Ezra. Republicans suck at math, but as we all know, they don't read your blog. For that matter, nobody in a position to make policy reads it, or anything else remotely related to reality.

Posted by: fishellb | February 16, 2011 11:59 AM | Report abuse

This is their stated goal per Grover Norquist "I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub." Anyone that isn't aware of this has not been paying attention. Why do you think our country is falling into Second World Status? If you thought inequity in Egypt was bad we are not far behind. We now fit as a Plutarchy instead of a Democracy.

Posted by: keirandcee | February 16, 2011 2:00 PM | Report abuse

More Boehner math: Question: How many engines does it take to fly a single-engine airplane? Answer: Two, if the engines are built in John Boehner's state, at a cost to taxpayers of $2.9 billion more than the Pentagon wants for this project. How can we pay for this, you ask? Easy, cut way back on air traffic controllers, since controlling air traffic takes away our freedom and is clearly wasteful government spending.

Posted by: duck60 | February 16, 2011 2:26 PM | Report abuse

I have several quibbles with Klein's analysis but agree with his bottom line. He attacks Boehner's numbers because they don't include postal workers. The USPS is downsizing, as we know. But the USPS is a separate legal entity that is technically self-supporting. The downsizing has not been political -- it has been done by the PMG with the consent of his Board, on which both Reps and Dems serve. BTW, the USPS is being crushed by its pension and health obligations and eventually the government will have to bail it out.

Second, comparing numbers of workers as a percentage of the population is meaningless as a measure of managerial efficiency. Computers, for example, have eliminated most of the secretarial positions in government. Programs have changed dramatically over time. Analyzing managerial acumen and worker productivity are very tricky propositions. An econ professor would give Klein an F on that chart.

But Boehner is wrong to harp on this point also. The number of workers and their salaries are a small part of our budget problem. Take for example the Dept. of Education, which has about 5,000 workers but distributes billions in funding -- the proposed amount in Obama's 2011 budget is about $71 billion. Or take a soldier in Afghanistan. The cost of supplying that soldier works out to about a million dollars a year. Employee counts and salary dollars are a tiny part of the picture. Also, the feds have greatly increased the number of contractors over the years. The number of contractors in Afghanistan and Iraq is vast -- 208,000 as of July 2010. Boehner is all for military spending, and I have seen no evidence he would cut funding for these contractors.

So the actual number of employees is almost beside the point. It's the programs, especially the discretionary military ones, that are more important, and on the military programs the Republicans and Democrats have for the most part been silent.

Posted by: cossack2 | February 23, 2011 7:41 PM | Report abuse

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