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Despite Bush's Credo,
Government Grows

TOM HAMBURGER / Wall Street Journal 4sep03

As Conservatives Groan, Study Cites Increase Of Employees on Federal Contracts, Grants

WASHINGTON—The Bush Administration has brought the era of big government back, say a Brookings Institution scholar and a growing number of conservatives dismayed about such growth under the Republicans' watch.

While the number of official government employees declined slightly after President Bush took office, the Brookings study to be released Friday finds the number of full-time employees working on government contracts and grants has zoomed by more than one million people since 1999, bringing the overall head count to more than 12.1 million as of this past October.

RETURN OF BIG GOVERNMENT

After decreasing during the post Cold War
Clinton years, a new study says the US
government is growing again, spurred by huge
increases in contractors and grantees.

Growing again. . .
Estimated size of federal workforce, in millions

Through government contracts
Top federal-contractor employment in 2002,
in millions, and percentage change from 1999

Source: Brookings Institution based on estimates from
EagleEye Publishers

 

Cartoon by John Jonik

Cartoon by John Jonik

The eight-page report is likely to fuel debate about the administration's approach, at a time when budget deficits are ballooning and Mr. Bush is pressuring Democrats to hold down federal spending.

Other analysts have noted an expansion of government in some areas in the Bush years, but the Brookings survey sketches a broader picture. It found that the growth has occurred in such diverse areas as the Department of Health and Human Services and the General Services Administration—not just in areas such as homeland security and defense following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The report finds that the growth is happening entirely outside traditional civil-service hiring channels. "The Bush administration is overseeing a vast expansion of the largely hidden federal work force of contractors and grantees," according to the report, written by Paul Light, who directs the Center for Public Service at Brookings, a nonpartisan think tank.

Mr. Light previously was cheered by conservatives when he debunked claims by then-Vice President Al Gore about how much government had shrunk in the Clinton administration in his 1999 book, "The True Cost of Government." Mr. Light showed then that the number of contract and grant employees had grown and that most of the Clinton administration's decrease stemmed from the post-Cold War period when Defense Department employment declined.

A spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget, Trent Duffy, took issue with Mr. Light's calculations but acknowledged that government has grown since Mr. Bush took office. "By and large the growth that occurred resulted from the war on terror, homeland security and improving corporate governance," Mr. Duffy said. "The president believes that pursuing those [priorities] is both appropriate and necessary."

The office also questioned the study's contention that the growth was being hidden. "The purpose of hiring in this fashion is not to disguise the size of government," said Clay Johnson, OMB deputy director for management. "The amount of money being spent here is very visible and is debated in great detail by Congress and the executive branch."

He said spending, rather than estimated head count, is a better measure of the size of government, though that also has increased. He added the administration is focused on getting government to operate effectively, not at a certain size.

But representatives of two conservative think tanks said the findings dovetail with their own studies of government growth under President Bush. Stephen Moore, president of the Club for Growth, and Daniel Mitchell, a Heritage Foundation economist, argue that government was much better contained under President Clinton, in part because Mr. Clinton faced a skeptical Republican Congress.

"We are now seeing the biggest expansion in government since Lyndon Johnson was in the White House," Mr. Moore said. "It is pretty much an across-the-board mushrooming of government. We have the biggest education, foreign aid and agriculture bills in history, and bigger expansions are on the agenda."

Mr. Mitchell called the growth of government under Mr. Bush "very troubling for conservatives." He calculates that domestic spending is up about one percentage point of gross domestic product. "That is quite discouraging," he said, "particularly since we made so much progress under Clinton in reducing the size of government."

Some other conservatives see it differently. Grover Norquist, founder of the Americans for Tax Reform, says much of the growth is short-term and aimed at programs to make government more effective, helping conservatives to meet long-term goals of shrinking government. He cited Mr. Bush's education initiative requiring more student testing as an example that could eventually bring school costs down. "We are going to find that there are failures in the public-school system. Are we building the case for school choice, for defeating teacher's unions? I think you can argue that we are, that we are investing in order to reform."

Hiring from the private sector as opposed to the civil service, he said, also avoids permanent costs and makes it easier to shrink government. He predicted that if Mr. Bush stays in office, government spending by 2008 would shrink in relation to the economy.

Mr. Light's study contends the expansion is here to stay and that using grant and contract employees rather than civil servants "reflects a deliberate strategy by both Congress and the president to disguise the true size of government." In addition to individuals who owe their employment directly to the federal government, the report suggests states still need to add about three million jobs by 2010 to meet Bush administration mandates in education and homeland security, although no such growth appears yet in the study. That would bring total federal-related employment to 20 million from 17 million, Mr. Light predicts.

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