Despite budget showdowns, federal government gets no smaller

Another budget fight looms this fall, but will it make a difference?

THE WASHINGTON POSTAugust 25, 2013 

After all of the battles, this is what the federal government looks like now:

It is on pace, this year, to spend $3.455 trillion.

That figure is actually down from 2010 — the year that worries about government spending helped bring on a tea party uprising, a Republican takeover in the House and a series of ulcer-causing showdowns in Congress.

But it is not down by that much. Back then, the government spent a whopping $3.457 trillion.

Measured another way — not in dollars, but in people — the government has about 4.1 million employees today, military and civilian. That’s more than the populations of 24 states.

In 2010, it had 4.3 million employees.

If Republicans and Democrats can’t agree on spending levels by Oct. 1, there could be a government shutdown. Followed, perhaps, by a national credit default.

That will be showdown number seven. To assess what the first six accomplished, The Washington Post tried to measure the government in four different dimensions: federal expenditures, federal workers, federal rules and federal real estate.

The first two were down, slightly. The third was way up. And in the fourth case, the government itself wasn’t even sure what happened.

UNCHANGED

In every category there was evidence that politicians could not shake many of the old habits that made government big in the first place. They allowed duplication to live. They let “temporary” giveaways turn permanent. And they yielded to inertia, declining to revisit expensive decisions.

The result was that Congress often passed up “smart cuts” in favor of dumb ones — taking broad hacks at the budget, instead of pruning away what was unnecessary.

“For all the brave talk, one single fact has trumped all this great rhetoric. Most of the people who came in saying, ‘We’re going to change Washington,’ simply didn’t understand Washington,” said Steve Bell, a longtime Republican staffer who now works at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Bell’s point is that today’s politicians do not understand the political forces that produce and then protect inefficient programs. Or the difficulty of changing the social programs that spend the bulk of Washington’s money.

“That kind of hard-edged budget work ... is just too complicated. And it’s just too politically incendiary for this town to do,” Bell said.

The reduction in federal spending since 2010 is still something historic. Any reduction in spending would have been, after a decades-long spending binge that peaked in the first years of President Barack Obama’s term.

This year, the government’s spending is projected to be down by about 5 percent from 2010, accounting for inflation.

But even now, the government still spends.

‘MANDATORY SPENDING’

This year’s projected spending will be more than in any year of the George W. Bush administration. And more than 30 percent higher (accounting for inflation) than the last year of President Bill Clinton’s term.

It is still so big primarily because Congress and Obama have largely failed to deal with programs such as Medicare, Social Security and food stamps.

These “mandatory spending” programs are very large, accounting for about 60 percent of federal spending. Congress doesn’t set their spending every year. Instead, when need goes up, spending goes up.

Even after six paralyzing budget showdowns, this spending has fallen by less than 1 percent. By contrast, spending on discretionary expenses has fallen by 14 percent.

“We’re nowhere. I mean, the sad reality is that we’re nowhere,” said Gordon Adams, a budget official in the Clinton administration and now a fellow at the Stimson Center.

And now, in a capital burned by six crises, a deal to cut these big-ticket programs seems less likely than ever. “We’ve gotten further away from anything that will bring us to a ‘grand bargain’ right now,” Adams said.

But it is not only the big cuts that Congress has struggled with. It has also found it hard to break several little bad habits that made government fat in the first place. One is pork, the habit of using taxpayer money for a legislator’s pet cause.

Congress also has indulged in the habit of letting “temporary” giveaways become effectively permanent, and there are some prime examples.

Essential Air Service is a $240 million program that subsidizes flights to 161 small airports. It was supposed to die in 1988. Instead, Congress has renewed the program, again and again. Now it subsidizes flights to places such as tiny Glendive, Mont., where the government pays for a 19-seat aircraft to visit twice a day. On average, two people get on each day. The subsidy works out to $836 for each of their tickets.

“If we can’t cut this, we can’t cut anything,” said Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., who sponsored an attempt to kill the program last summer and again in 2013.

EMPLOYEE NUMBERS

In terms of people, the federal government is smaller by about 170,000 employees. In many cases, the reductions came as employees left, and cash-strapped agencies could not afford to replace them.

Today, the government workforce includes 2.7 million civilian employees, including postal workers — a number that is roughly equal to the population of Nevada. It also includes 1.4 million active-duty members of the military. That’s roughly the population of Hawaii.

But those numbers are still incomplete. They do not count a vast number of other people who also do the government’s work: private contractors who do federal work full time. It’s hard to judge the actual size of the government — or the actual scope of its work — without knowing how many of these people exist.

The Obama administration doesn’t. It was supposed to have started counting these contractors: Congress ordered it in 2009. But the formal regulations haven’t been finalized. So there is still no full count.

Another way to measure the government’s size is by the length of its rule book, the Code of Federal Regulations. It is now as long as 95 King James Bibles.

And it has grown by 16,500 pages under Obama. That’s nine Bibles.

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