Contractors, Corporate Lobbyists, And Government Workers

Paul Glastris, in an article about government service, makes a good point about corruption (boldface mine):

More broadly, the federal workforce, at 2.8 million employees, is the same size it was in the 1960s when Peters was part of it, even though the U.S. population since then has more than doubled and the federal budget has quadrupled in real terms. Lawmakers control the federal head count and don’t want to be seen as “growing the bureaucracy.” The most Democrats in Congress have been willing to do is beat back repeated Republican efforts to further decimate the federal workforce.

To make up for the inadequate number of staff, the government increasingly relies on contractors. Peters bemoans this trend, citing numerous examples of how it has hurt government’s performance. He’s right. But he doesn’t call for the obvious solution: boost the number of federal employees so more of the work can be done in house. This would require hiring a million new federal workers, according to University of Pennsylvania political science professor John DiIulio, and boosting their pay as well.

That is also the key to curbing the power of lobbyists, which won’t happen merely by inveighing against their greed. Lobbyists’ power comes mainly from their control of information—about the industries they represent, about the ways government programs work—that congressional staffers, many of them young and inexperienced, often lack. The way to neutralize that power is to strengthen government’s capacity to get that information independently, by hiring more staffers and researchers and paying them more so they can make a decent living without having to join the private sector.

Of course, a politician who called for hiring a million more federal workers, and raising their salaries, might appear suicidal in the current political climate. But if Peters is correct—and I think he is—that a key to bridging the class gap is for more Americans, especially the elite, to serve in government, a political way has to be found.

I don’t think Glastris realizes it’s not just about information, but expertise. I’ve seen instances where government agencies are solely dependent on outside contractors. Once they get their hooks in, it’s very difficult to get rid of them, even if they’re performing poorly, since the agency lacks the expertise to take over that function (and anyone who complains about government workers should see what many ’embedded’ government contractors do).

Of course, in the current political climate, nothing will happen, but it’s worth putting this out their for the long term.

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