John Boehner's funny numbers
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.
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