The House Republican "Pledge to America" proposal that would impose an across-the-board freeze on non-security federal hiring may sound reasonable at first blush, especially given the budget deficit, the increased role of government and the economic pain being felt across the country.
After all, why shouldn't government tighten its belt like the rest of us? The states are doing it. Governments in Europe are headed that way, and even Communist Cuba is cutting its government workforce.
Appealing as it may sound, however, the GOP's approach is counterproductive and would handcuff our government's ability to effectively fulfill important functions.
The congressional focus in these difficult times should be on the goal everyone presumably wants: an efficient and competent government. "Rightsizing" the federal workforce requires careful analysis and prudent choices. Some agencies may need fewer employees, but other places may need more. The Republican plan for uniform cutbacks would eliminate such flexibility and preempt strategic decision-making.
Does the public want the Interior Department, for example, to be automatically barred from hiring additional inspectors to guard against more devastating oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico or applying leverage where other potential disasters may be brewing? When the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in April, there were just 60 inspectors to cover nearly 4,000 facilities in the region.
Do we want to stop the Food and Drug Administration from hiring scientists and experts it may need to prevent food-borne illnesses like the recent outbreak of salmonella from eggs?
Should we arbitrarily prevent the Social Security Administration from hiring more people if they are needed to process a growing backlog of disability claims or the Department of Health and Human Services from hiring more public health professionals to cope with an influenza pandemic? An across-the-board hiring freeze is certainly easy to do, but history tells us it will lead to uneven capacity, diminish government's performance and increase the likelihood of missteps that may further erode the public's trust. It also would close the door on thousands of young Americans who want to pursue public service and who would bring new ideas and fresh thinking to government.
Despite all the talk about big government and the calls for downsizing and saving money, the civilian federal workforce, now at about 2.1 million, is smaller than it was in 1967. And there are over 100 million more Americans today than there were then.
The federal workforce has grown in the past decade, but two-thirds of the increase is directly related to the terrorist threat sparked by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. After Sept. 11, the public demanded a federal response, and Congress and the White House enacted new policies; put in place new homeland security, defense and intelligence initiatives; and hired people to run and manage these efforts.
Since the proposed hiring freeze would apply only to non-security personnel, it would exempt the national security sector, which has grown rapidly and been the most costly. But the freeze could penalize many other government functions, including important citizen services -- such as food safety, emergency response, Social Security and transportation -- and may not result in the kind of savings that the plan suggests.
A hiring freeze also could mean greater outsourcing to private contractors that might end up costing taxpayers more money, not less. Government contracting was $222 billion in 2001 and more than doubled to $532 billion by 2008, dwarfing the cost of the modest growth in federal employment, which cost government about $12 billion more per year over the same period.
Any federal workforce decisions Congress considers should be measured, based on sound management principles, and include a clear understanding of federal obligations and the potential consequences. And any federal workforce changes should be implemented with great care, not with a sledgehammer.
The writer is president and chief executive of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.
This was originally published as an exclusive to The Washington Post.