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Expert: Both candidates likely to expand federal work force

By SARA FRITZ

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 30, 2000


WASHINGTON -- Amid the controversy over Al Gore's alleged exaggerations, one of the Democratic presidential candidate's most seriously disputed assertions has gotten little notice. It has to do with the number of people on the public payroll.

Gore repeated the claim Tuesday that as head of the administration's program to "reinvent government" he has succeeded in reducing the size of the federal government.

"Let's not forget that eight years ago, the size of government was exploding," he told an audience in Little Rock, Ark. " . . . Since then, I have been in charge of the effort to reduce the size of government and we have done exactly that: balancing the budget for the first time in 30 years and reducing the number of federal positions by more than 300,000."

If elected, Gore said, he "will not add to the number of people doing work for the federal government -- not even by one position."

According to Paul C. Light, author of the book The True Size of Government and the recognized expert in Washington on this arcane subject, Gore has consistently overstated the effect of his reinventing government program on employment. Furthermore, Light says Gore cannot keep his pledge to continue reducing the size of government in the future.

"The federal government is poised to get bigger," Light says, "no matter whether the electorate chooses George W. Bush or Al Gore as the next president."

While Light, a scholar at the liberal Brookings Institution, acknowledges that government employment has decreased over the past decade, he insists that Gore's analysis of the effect of his reinvention program is flawed for two reasons:

It does not include millions of government jobs outside the civil service system -- including the uniformed military and federal contractors.

The vice president does not mention that most of the reduction in the federal work force in the past decade was as a result of layoffs among civilian military employees at the end of the Cold War.

"But for huge cuts in Defense and Energy, and lesser cuts at four other federal agencies, the true size of government would have increased," Light says. He estimates that employment related to domestic programs grew from 5.5-million in 1990 to 5.9-million in 1999.

Gore does not deny that the end of the Cold War contributed to the decline in government employment, according to spokesman Jim Kennedy. But Kennedy says Gore believes his reinventing government hastened this decline.

Likewise, Light does not entirely discount the effect of Gore's reinventing government initiative, which sought to streamline the bureaucracy where possible. But he says it had little effect on the government's size.

"Reinventing government has done many good things for the federal government, not the least of which is a new focus on customer satisfaction, but it simply did not predate the fall of the Berlin Wall," which precipitated cuts in the U.S. military, Light said.

Nor does Light give Republican George W. Bush particularly good marks for accuracy on this topic. He strongly disputes Bush's contention that the Gore plan for providing prescription drugs to Medicare patients would add 20,000 employees to the government payroll.

"Although Gore's plan will require more employees somewhere, there is no reason he cannot merely shift the administrative burden to contractors, including some of the same insurance agents who would be tapped to handle the alternative Bush plan," Light said.

To most taxpayers, it must seem confusing that there could be such a big disagreement over the true size of government. The source of the disagreement lies, in part, in an apples-versus-oranges comparison.

Most politicians like to count only full-time federal civil service employees, and forget about the many others who perform government services without being part of the civil service system. Kennedy says Gore's numbers are based strictly on civil service employment, excluding other types of government employment.

Light says the number of people working in federally mandated programs was 16.8-million last year, reflecting a decrease of about 1-million during the Clinton administration. Only 1.8-million were part of the civil service. The remainder included 900,000 postal workers, 1.4-million uniformed military personnel, 2.5-million whose salaries were paid by federal grants, 5.6-million employed by federal contractors and 4.65-million working under federal mandates in state and local government.

It is not sufficient to count only those people who receive a paycheck directly from the federal government -- as Gore does -- because frequently when civil service jobs are cut, the work is simply farmed out to a federal contractor, Light says. That, he argues, does not constitute a cutback in the size of the federal work force.

"The federal government is becoming more, not less, dependent on its nearly 4-million service contractors to keep customers happy, answer its . . . phone lines, program its computers, manage its military bases, or conduct its financial audits," Light said.

The primary reason Light predicts that government employment is going to start growing again is that the recent downsizing of the military has stopped. And Gore and Bush are pledging to increase military spending and create domestic programs.

"The number is sure to grow under either president, whether through mandates for yearly testing under Bush's educational reforms or contracts for new weapons systems under Gore's defense building," Light said.

"The jobs may not show up in the civil service head count, but they are federal jobs of a kind nonetheless. . . . It is hard to imagine how Bush or Gore could reverse the course, particularly given the federal government's sluggish response to the talent war for entry-level workers."

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