The Real Deal About Our Federal Government

Unless you’ve been on life support for the past two, three decades, you know that one of the central issues facing America today is the rise of “Big Government.”  The Tea Party and their allies in Congress went so far as to shut down that Big, Bad, Intrusive Government not so long ago.  It is, according to them, a vast danger to the American way of life.  Or something.  From Ronald Reagan in the 1980’s (“Government isn’t the solution; Government is the problem.”) to Ted Cruz just yesterday we’ve been hearing all about the perils of allowing the menacing Feds into our daily lives.  And just to clarify: the anti-government folks are not talking about your state or my local government.  No.  In fact I can’t recall a single Tea Party follower slamming a single state or local government for being evil, intrusive or socialist.  It’s the Federal Government that the conservatives and Cliven Bundy rail against.  

Frankly amidst all the clamor about the bloated, inefficient and wasteful Federal Government over the years, I’ve wondered from time to time just what the facts are about our Federal Government.  Well, John J. Dilulio, political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania and first director of the “Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives” under George W. Bush, has shed some light on this issue in his book. “Bring Back the Bureaucrats.”  (Catchy title – I can imagine what the Tea Party folks will say about it.)  He says, in a recent Washington Post article about his work, that we need to hire at least one million more Federal workers by 2035.  Wow!  Is that going to blow some brains away here in the good old U.S. of A!

Let’s take a look at some of his data:

·   In 2013 the Federal Government spent five times what it spent in 1960,        adjusted for inflation. 

·   Annual Federal spending doubled between 1960 and 1975.  (That’s just 15             years.)

·      Annual Federal spending doubled again between 1975 and 2000. (25 years.)

·      Dozens of new Federal agencies were created over the 1960 to 2000 period such as the EPA, FEMA and Homeland Security. 

·      Number of Federal civilian workers in 1960 when JFK was president: 

+/- 1.8 million

·      Number of Federal civilian workers in 1984 when Ronald Reagan was president:  

            +/- 2.2 million

·      Number of Federal civilian workers in 2012 when Obama was re-elected:

            +/- 2 million1

To Recap:

Federal Expenditures

1960 – $526 billion

1975 – 1.06 trillion (estimated)

1984 – 1.53 trillion

2012 -  3.37 trillion

Federal Employees

1960  1.8 million

1975 – 2.0 million

1984 – 2.2 million

2012 – 2 million

Here's a chart with Federal Employment as a % of the population:

So, with scant risk of being labelled “insame, ”one could rightly ask:

“How in hell could the Federal Government spend five times in 2013 than it did in 1960 when Federal Employees increased by just under 12% over the same period?” 

Good Question;  Easy Answer:  Privatization

Recall the second corollary to the Reagan’s and the conservatives’ “Government isn’t the solution; Government is the problem” ideological catch-phrase:

            “The private sector can do it better.”

The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 saw the start of a massive out-sourcing of Government functions to the private sector through contracting-out.  Keep in mind that Federal Agencies are bound by law to carry out their legislative mandates.  The IRS, for example, can’t say “Well, people don’t like paying taxes, so we’re just going to stop collecting them.”   Unless you’ve been living on a South Pacific island that has no connections to the outside world, you know that this contracting-out continues today.  It’s why a fivefold increase in Federal spending can allegedly be “handled” by fewer employees today than in 1984.2  

 But this outsourcing doesn’t go to the private sector alone.  State and local governments and non-profit organizations are also recipients of these Federal funds as well.  Here are a few more of Dilulio’s facts:

·      Annual Federal contracting-out to States :  $600 billion
                (State & local government workers have tripled since 1960 to more than 18 million                workers today.)

·      Annual Federal Contracting-out to for-profit organizations:  $500 billion

·      Annual revenue of the nation’s 1.6 million non-profits:  $2 trillion.
        (About one-third of which comes from government grants and fees for                      goods and services.)

So now that you have a clearer picture of the big, bad Feds and how, despite ballooning Federal expenditures over the past decades, the Federal Government’s total civilian employees is only slightly higher than in 1960 during the Kennedy Administration (by about 200,000) and about 400,000 less today than during the Obama Administration than during the Reagan years.   But note that between 1960 and 2012, the US population increased from around 180 million people to around 316 million today.

So you might ask, since we have this tremendous increase in population and a virtual explosion of Federal expenditures combined with the outsourcing of government activities with basically flat Federal civilian employment numbers:


Good Question.  No Easy Answer.  I pass. 

On the other hand, I have to ask if it’s a giant, earth shattering surprise that year after year we have Medicare and Medicaid fraud scandals?   Is it a huge cosmic revelation that the VA – one of the largest Federal outsourcing organizations in the country - is beset with long standing, serious issues of management and accountability?  Is it shocking that scandal after scandal rocks Federal agency after Federal Agency when when some private contractor is hauled up on criminal charges – usually bribery or stealing?  The Federal government is criminally short of employees to monitor and evaluate the billions upon billions of outsourced dollars spent annually.  So, no, I’m not surprised.    

And this idea that the private sector or even the non-profits will self-monitor and uncover fraud in their own organizations is a tad naive from my point of view.  The author notes the following in this regard:

            “A 2011 report by the National Academy of Public Administration and the Kettering Foundation concluded that programs operated by civil servants receive “significantly higher scores” for management than those run by grant- and contract-based third parties.”

Sure, maybe a bit self-serving but in my work experience in both the public and private sectors, I’m here to inform you – if you don’t already know – that private sector employees do indeed look at porn on the job.   Such activities are not the exclusive purview of government slugs.  Same for misuse of funds and taking office supplies for personal use. 

For me, I’ve had a few questions answered.  I had this sneaking suspicion that the Federal Government and Federal workers were somehow being unjustly maligned for all these years.   Which is not to say that a Federal worker here, a Federal worker there is not on the take.  But given the circumstances Federal workers face today,  it’s a miracle that we have a Federal Government that functions at all. 

1 All Figures exclude military and post office employees.

2On a personal note, I’m seriously considering the South Pacific island option.  Sounds quite peaceful.  


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