Rude Awakening

Rudy Giuliani sees the anticipated federal retirement wave not as a problem, but an opportunity.

Just when it seemed like we were going to have a high-minded debate this presidential campaign season about the size, functions and capacity of a federal bureaucracy that is arguably being asked to do more than at any time in the nation's history, up stepped GOP front-runner Rudolph W. Giuliani to take the discussion right back into the mud.

It came about because Giuliani ran into a political problem this spring. He emerged as the front-runner for the Republican nomination, largely on the strength of his can-do reputation as New York's mayor. But with stands on certain issues-particularly abortion-that were out of the conservative mainstream, he needed to burnish his right-wing credentials. So Giuliani made a pilgrimage to one of the bastions of the conservative movement, The Heritage Foundation in Washington. There, among other issues, he raised the topic of the anticipated wave of retirements in the federal civil service, which Bush administration officials have repeatedly characterized as a crisis of epic proportions.

But he made it clear he doesn't see things that way. In fact, he views the notion that thousands of career civil servants might leave at roughly the same time not as a problem, but as an opportunity. In his Heritage speech, he pondered the implications of a projection that 42 percent of civilian federal employees would retire during the next two presidential terms. "Some politicians assume that we'll just replace all of them," he said. "I bet there are some politicians in the other party-I don't know, maybe in ours-that think we ought to increase them. . . . Here's what I would do: I would seek to replace only half of them."

Such a move, Giuliani said, would save $70 billion a year. "The challenge will be, of course, to convince the Democrats that there's such a thing as a nonessential government employee," he said.

Nice.

In campaign materials, Giuliani boasts that in New York, he "restored fiscal discipline by controlling spending and cutting wasteful programs. He cut the size of city-funded government bureaucracy by nearly 20 percent." He clearly wants to do the same thing at the federal level.

But there are a couple of problems with that notion. The first is that Giuliani's math is likely to be off. The scary figures on looming retirements refer to employees eligible to retire, not those who actually do. The latter figure will likely be lower than Giuliani predicts, because not all employees leave as soon as they can. But suppose he could actually succeed in slashing the federal workforce at a time when it is clear that the government doesn't have the capacity to do some of the basic things its citizen-customers demand. That would raise a series of questions for Giuliani: Does he want the Veterans Affairs Department to be able to provide top-quality care for military service members returning from Iraq with serious injuries? Does he want the Federal Emergency Management Agency to be able to quickly and effectively respond to emergencies (even really big ones)? How about, say, contract management at the Coast Guard? Does he want the agency to get into another situation like it did with its Deepwater program, where it was forced to outsource not only the construction of new equipment, but even the process of determining what the agency needed and how it should be purchased?

Dealing with these issues doesn't necessarily require an influx of personnel. But they certainly can't be addressed with a haphazard, unplanned loss of institutional memory that would be caused by simply not replacing half the people who retire in the eight years after the next presidential inauguration.

For the past 15 years, federal agencies to varying degrees have downsized, upsized, reinvented themselves, become more performance-based and results-focused, and put their jobs up for competition from the private sector. Almost nothing the government has done in that period has been undertaken as a purely bureaucratic endeavor performed by government employees.

As a result, most agencies have long since exhausted their options for doing more with fewer employees. Which raises another question for Giuliani: What, exactly, do you want government to stop doing? Or do you simply want all of government to be less effective and more wasteful? Because that's what another round of steep cuts in the civil service is likely to get you.

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