Topic: Government and Politics

Federal Employment by Department

We’ve learned about what a huge and dysfunctional agency Veterans Affairs is in recent weeks. I had not realized that the agency added 100,000 workers in just the past seven years.

How large is the VA compared to the rest of the federal bureaucracy? OPM publishes historical data here for the major departments, which I’ve summarized in the two figures below covering 1950 to 2012.

Figure 1: Splits total federal civilian (non-uniformed) employment into defense and nondefense. For nondefense, you can see the modest retrenchments under Reagan and Clinton, and you can see the expansions under Bush 1, Bush 2, and Obama.

Figure 2: Shows the breakdown by department, aside from defense. Veterans (blue line) is by far the largest nondefense department, with 69 percent more employees that second place Homeland Security (red line). One alarming trend is the rapid growth in Justice Department employment (black line), which has doubled since the late-1980s to 117,000 workers.

Data notes: For some departments created since 1950, such as Homeland, it looks like OPM extrapolated the time series backwards based on the original component agencies of the new department. For Transportation on the other hand, it looks like OPM represented employment as zero before it was created. I did one tweak to the OPM data, which was moving TSA from Transportation to DHS for 2002. 

Washington Should Stop Reassuring the Dependent Europeans

The president flew to Europe.  He planned to “soothe European friends,” declared the New York Times.  He aimed “to stress U.S. commitment” to the continent, said the Washington Post.

That’s certainly what the Europeans want to hear.  But they want “something concrete” rather than just “empty words,” explained Bohdan Szklarski of the University of Warsaw.  For most Europeans, especially in the east, that means the U.S. putting more boots on the ground.  Opined Heather Conley of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, reinforcement of the eastern border is required, “and potentially we’ll have to reinforce it for a very long time.”

Why?

The Baltic States are screaming for enhanced military protection.  Yet Estonia devotes just two percent of its GDP to defense.  Latvia spends .9 percent of its GDP on the military.  Lithuania commits .8 percent of its GDP on defense.

Poland may be the country most insistent about the necessity of American troops on along its border with Russia.  To its credit, Poland has been increasing military outlays, but it still falls short of NATO’s two percent objective.  Warsaw spent 1.8 percent last year. 

Washington Backs Egypt’s New Dictator

As expected, the presidential election in Egypt confirmed Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as the country’s new leader.  It was not exactly the model of a free and fair election.  Not only had el-Sisi, as the leader of the coup that ousted President Mohamed Morsi, been Egypt’s de facto ruler for months, but his military colleagues (and their weaponry) were firmly behind his presidential candidacy.  Security forces had killed hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood members, Morsi’s political base, and jailed thousands of others, including Morsi himself.  Subservient Egyptian judicial tribunals imposed death sentences on more than eight hundred regime opponents, following trials that did not meet even the most meager standards of due process, in just the past two months. 

Western observers, including a Cato colleague, noted the pervasive censorship in the weeks leading up to the election.  Government-run media outlets maintained a steady barrage of images vilifying Morsi and hailing el-Sisi as the savior of the nation.  The images in the so-called private outlets (the ones that the junta had not shut down) provided images and editorial commentary nearly indistinguishable from the official government publications.

Under such circumstances, the outcome was as predictable as the Crimean “referendum” that ratified Russia’s takeover.  El-Sisi won with nearly 93 percent of the vote.  The only flaw in this orchestrated farce was a low voter turnout, the one permissible way to protest Egypt’s slide back into dictatorship.  But while the Obama administration repeatedly and harshly criticized the electoral charade in Crimea, U.S. officials portrayed the Egyptian election as progress toward democracy.  There was a time when U.S. leaders routinely castigated bogus elections in communist countries that produced wildly lopsided majorities for the incumbent regime.  No such criticism was forthcoming in this case, just as Washington didn’t denounce the earlier balloting for the new Egyptian constitution that produced a 98 percent favorable vote. 

VA Scandal: Crisis of Big Government

Peggy Noonan’s op-ed on the weekend was titled “The VA Scandal Is a Crisis of Leadership.” Noonan discusses how President Obama “doesn’t do the plodding, unshowy, unromantic work of making government work.” Obama is not a good manager, and so scandals like the current one are to be expected.

I enjoy Noonan’s articles and her observations on Obama’s style are right on target, but her view about why the VA scandal happened is off the mark. The president does seem to spend his time giving speeches, strategizing politics, and playing golf rather than rolling up his shirt sleeves and fixing programs. He does seem to be “a show horse, not a workhorse,” as Noonan says. But that’s not why the VA scandal happened.

The VA situation is appalling, but it has common elements with scandals that happen under every president. Those elements include bureaucrats behaving selfishly, politicians promising reforms and not following through, federal workforce dysfunction, and the failed central planning of a complex industry. The VA scandal happened because the government is a giant monopoly with none of the built-in checks of the marketplace. Federal politicians themselves are not a check because they are too distracted and the government is far too large for them to keep track of.

Noonan says, “the president is an executive, and executives manage.” Really? He could efficiently manage the entire $3.5 trillion government and its 2.1 million workers and 2,200 programs? I doubt it. I think we could vote in the head of PWC as the next president, and we would still have scandal after scandal in Washington.

Noonan worked in the Reagan administration, and so she remembers the 1980’s HUD scandal. The shenanigans, waste, and bad behavior under Reagan’s HUD secretary Sam Pierce over eight years were jaw-dropping. HUD under Pierce was a cronyism factory for the secretary’s buddies and Republican donors. Tad DeHaven discusses the abuses in this essay.

Perhaps Ronald Reagan should have been a better manager. But he understood that the problem in Washington is far deeper than just a need to run things better, as many of his famous comments reveal:

Government is not a solution to our problem, government is the problem.”

No government ever voluntarily reduces itself in size. So governments’ programs, once launched, never disappear. Actually, a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth.”

The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

Chief Justice Roberts Again Rewrites Law, Avoids Duty to Hold Government’s Feet to the Constitutional Fire

In today’s ruling in Bond v. United States, the Supreme Court was obviously right to reverse as federal overreaching the conviction of a woman who used certain chemicals to attack her husband’s paramour. This was a “purely local crime,” and the decision to prosecute Carol Anne Bond for it under a law that implements the international Chemical Weapons Convention was an abuse of federal power.

But in deciding the case so narrowly, creatively reinterpreting an expansive federal statute instead of reaching the constitutional issue at the heart of this bizarre case, the Court’s majority abdicated its duty to check the other branches of government. Bond was a case about the scope of the treaty power—can Congress do something pursuant to a treaty that it can’t otherwise do?—and yet the majority opinion avoided that discussion altogether in the name of a faux judicial minimalism. That’s not surprising given that its author is Chief Justice Roberts, who goes out of his way to avoid hard calls whenever possible. (Sometimes the practical result is still the right one, as here, sometimes it’s disastrously not, as in NFIB v. Sebelius, the Obamacare case, and sometimes even Roberts finds it impossible to avoid the Court’s constitutional duty, as in Citizens United and Shelby County.)

It was thus left to Justice Scalia, joined by Justices Thomas and Alito (in part), to do the hard work—to make those balls-and-strikes calls that Roberts promised at his confirmation hearing—and repudiate Missouri v. Holland, the 1920 case that’s been understood to mean that the federal government can indeed expand its own power by agreeing to do so with a foreign treaty partner. (Scalia’s opinion tracks Cato’s amicus brief closely, and cites my colleague Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz’s groundbreaking work in this area.)

One other takeaway here is that the Obama administration has yet again lost unanimously at the Supreme Court, adding to its record number of goose eggs—particularly in cases involving preposterous assertions of federal power. Here Chief Justice Roberts provides the apt langiappe: “The global need to prevent chemical warfare does not require the federal government to reach into the kitchen cupboard, or to treat a local assault with a chemical irritant as the deployment of a chemical weapon.”

Walking to School? Yeah, There’s a Federal Program for That

The Associated Press reports:

For a growing number of children in Rhode Island, Iowa and other states, the school day starts and ends in the same way — they walk with their classmates and an adult volunteer to and from school. Walking school buses are catching on in school districts nationwide because they are seen as a way to fight childhood obesity, improve attendance rates and ensure that kids get to school safely….

Many programs across the country are funded by the federal Safe Routes to School program, which pays for infrastructure improvements and initiatives to enable children to walk and bike to school.

 

Number of VA Employees

After my blogpost yesterday about Department of Veterans Affairs spending, my research assistant Nick created the chart below on the number of VA employees. Wow, you don’t often see bureaucracies expand that rapidly! A 56 percent increase in just 13 years, from 219,000 to 341,000 employees. The VA has 100,000 new employees just since 2006.

The data is from this OPM website, which also provides a breakdown for agencies within departments. About 90 percent of VA employees are in the Veterans Health Administration, which is currently in the news for its horrendous mismanagement.