Reducing federal spending by reducing federal personnel costs is an appealing proposal because it lets politicians be for “less spending” without being for less programmatic activity. But as John Gravois argues in a new Washington Monthly article this is actually a huge problem. When congress mandates reduced staffing levels but doesn’t otherwise change what the federal government is supposed to do, there’s no way to get the job done but to rely more on contractors. And though contracting is sometimes the right way to go, to be properly executed you still need people supervising the contracts:
In other words, if Congress and the White House agree to substantial cuts in the federal workforce but don’t also agree to eliminate programs and reduce services, the end result could be more spending and deficits, not less. Strange as it may sound, to get a grip on costs, we should in many cases be hiring many more bureaucrats—and paying more to get better ones—not cutting their numbers and freezing their pay. Because in many parts of government, the bureaucracy has already crossed that dangerous threshold beyond which further cuts can only mean greater risk of a breakdown. Indeed, much of the runaway spending we’ve seen over the past decade is the result of our having crossed that line years ago—the last time there was a Democrat in the White House, a divided government, and calls for slashing the federal workforce in the air.
He runs down examples of how understaffing has wound up leading to runaway contract costs and huge overruns. But he also runs down examples of a more insidious phenomenon—understaffed regulatory agencies being unable to properly enforce existing environmental and financial regulations. I think this latter piece is really the nub of the issue. “Let businesses pollute all over the place” doesn’t sound so good as a political message. It’s much more viable to simply starve the regulatory agencies of the funds needed to do the job effectively. That kind of stealth deregulation is incredibly pernicious, but it’s also not amendable to this kind of “you think you’re going to save money, but really you won’t” type of argument that works for the contracting side.