Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A Federal Holiday -- for as far as the eye can see

Most Americans are living under the shadow of economic storm clouds. But the forecast couldn't be sunnier for federal worker bees, who will see the hive thrive under queen bee Barack Obama.

Washington is recession proof. The government grows even when the economy, and the American standard of living, contract. Maybe there's even a causal connection there.

A recent Washington Post analysis of Obama's first budget found that tens of thousands of federal positions will have to be added to implement his grand design.

"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.

Exactly how many new workers would be needed remains unclear -- one independent estimate was 100,000, while the conservative Heritage Foundation said it is likely to be closer to a quarter-million."

The Post went on to report that many federal agencies are already gearing up for a hiring glut. And while die-hard statists and federal employee unions are gleeful, it marks the reversal of a trend toward more modest government that began under President Ronald Reagan and continued through President Bill Clinton, who famously (though prematurely) declared that "the era of big government is over."

Reports The Post:

Between 1940 and 1970, the federal civilian workforce swelled from 707,000 to 2.1 million . . . . But ever since Ronald Reagan swept into the White House in 1981 with a call to decrease the government's footprint, presidents have limited the size of the workforce. Although President

George W. Bush added tens of thousands of airport baggage screeners and other homeland security jobs, he offset much of that increase by limiting hiring at other agencies. In reversing this trend, Obama would make himself politically vulnerable to charges that he is growing not just the power of government, but also its size. If the outside estimates are realized, Obama could spur a government hiring spree on a scale unseen since President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society agenda in the 1960s.

"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."

Obama and the Democrats in charge of Congress are making other moves that will grow the federal workforce and empower federal bureaucrats. While private sector unemployment rises, and good paying jobs dry up, federal workers seem poised to get big pay increases.

Obama last week used executive orders to reverse a trend toward outsourcing and privatizing federal jobs, by attempting to redefine, and broaden, the definition of an "inherently government function." Reports GovExec.com:

"President Obama on Wednesday ordered the Office of Management and Budget to undertake an in-depth review of the government's contracting efforts, including the outsourcing of work historically performed by federal employees.

A memorandum Obama issued requires the OMB director to work with the Defense secretary, NASA administrator, General Services Administration chief, Office of Personnel Management director and others to develop guidance on strengthening contract oversight, ending unnecessary no-bid and cost-plus deals and maximizing competition in procurement. Obama said these reforms will save taxpayers $40 billion annually. The guidance, due by Sept. 30, must clarify "when governmental outsourcing for services is and is not appropriate."

The memo stated that OMB Circular A-76, the government's playbook for public-private job competitions, was based on the "reasonable premise" that taxpayers might get a better deal if activities that are not inherently governmental are subject to competitive forces.

"However, the line between inherently governmental activities that should not be outsourced and commercial activities that may be subject to private sector competition has been blurred and inadequately defined," Obama wrote. "As a result, contractors may be performing inherently governmental functions. Agencies and departments must operate under clear rules prescribing when outsourcing is and is not appropriate."

The Bush administration strongly supported competitive sourcing and engaged in a number of legislative skirmishes to push the initiative and defend it from congressional detractors. Lawmakers have continued to fight public-private competitions, however, most recently with a provision in the fiscal 2009 omnibus spending bill that would suspend new Circular A-76 competitions. The provision also would require agencies to review current contracts and issue guidelines for considering if new projects can be performed by federal employees, or if previously outsourced work can be brought back in-house.

The move was hailed by federal employee unions, who have worked with Democrats in Congress to thwart any and all efforts to contract out government services. "We hope this is the end of the era of privatization during which agencies were forced to contract out regardless of cost or quality, and at the expense of integrity and accountability of federal programs," said John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees.

And the unions have a strong ally in Rep. Stephen Lynch, a Massachusetts Democrat who now chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Federal Workforce Subcommittee. Lynch's agenda begins with a pay raise for federal workers and grows more ambitious from there -- culminating in winning collective bargaining rights for airport screeners.

If you think traversing the TSA gauntlet is excruciating now, just wait until the "thousands standing around" are fully unionized. It'll make a trip to the post office feel like a breeze.

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