Unbreaking Government

By Dan Froomkin
9:25 AM ET, 03/ 3/2009

George Bush pretty much broke the federal government. He and former vice president Dick Cheney put people into key posts who didn't support the traditional missions of the agencies they led. Competence or experience weren't as important as loyalty to the White House, rigid ideological commitment to deregulation, aversion to oversight and allegiance to corporate and special interests over consumers and the general public.

And the outsourcing of federal jobs was taken to such an extreme that even Republicans now recognize it's gone too far. As I noted in a Feb. 24 item, after the breakout sessions at the White House's fiscal responsibility summit, GOP Rep. Darrell Issa got up to tell President Obama: "Mr. President, it was kind of a surprise in the procurement group that was together, we had almost universal recognition that over the last decade or so, we've overdone, in some cases, outsourcing of critical federal requirements, and that means that in many cases we spend more to hire a contractor or a non-federal worker than we would pay to invest in federal workers.

"And so there was universal -- Republican, Democrat, House and Senate, even -- (laughter) -- that during this administration we need to assess where we can re-federalize some parts of the workforce, particularly when it came to people who do get procurement and oversee the procurement."

Now it's Obama's job to fix what Bush broke. And part of that will entail a lot of hiring.

Philip Rucker writes in The Washington Post: "President Obama's budget is so ambitious, with vast new spending on health care, energy independence, education and services for veterans, that experts say he probably will need to hire tens of thousands of new federal government workers to realize his goals.

"The $3.6 trillion plan released last week proposes spending billions to begin initiatives and implement existing programs, and given Obama's insistence that he would scale back the use of private-sector contractors, his priorities could reverse a generational decline in the size of the government workforce....

"Obama inherited a federal workforce of about 2 million that [Paul C. Light, a professor of public service at New York University,] described as woefully understaffed, especially to fulfill his bold domestic policy agenda. He predicted that Obama's budget and the $787 billion economic recovery package could require an additional 100,000 federal workers, but warned that the number may be even higher.

"'I think that's just a start,' Light said. 'You kind of look across the federal landscape and you say there has to be more bodies with more expertise, as well as more bodies that can just deliver the basic services we've already promised.'"

Republicans, not surprisingly, aren't pleased: "'What group of socialists got in the room and wrote this budget? Do they have any idea what the implications are?' asked Republican Newt Gingrich, who as House speaker in the 1990s advocated a shrinking of the government. 'This is the most aggressive 180-degree turn that we have seen in the American system.'"

© 2009 The Washington Post Company