Editor's Notebook

Timothy B. Clark

Government on the Cheap." The phrase rattles about in my mind as I peruse the news we have been publishing this spring in the magazine and in our daily news briefing at www.govexec.com.

No one wants to pay for all the government services we now enjoy. Yet politicians want to spend more on programs now in vogue, such as education. Spending caps are too tight to accommodate existing programs, so there's a never-ending effort to cut corners, find phantom savings, and levy new fees.

It is all too familiar. Ten years ago, Government Executive coined a phrase that's still in parlance: "hollow government." On our cover, we depicted a house of cards, suggesting both hollowness and fragility. This summer we will publish a 10-years-later assessment of the syndrome, but it's not hard to conclude already that there's been no relief.

The problem is evident in the military. Air Force pilots are in short supply, and the Navy doesn't have enough people to man its aircraft carriers. Throughout the services, low pay, frequent and long deployments and the erosion of health care and retirement benefits are propelling mid-career officers and non-coms into the job-rich private sector. In reaction, Congress is moving to improve pay and benefits, as Sydney Freedberg reported in our magazine last month, but this effort may be too little and too late to reverse the disturbing trends.

And we can't afford it, if we're to stick within the budget caps Congress enacted in 1997. As budget expert Stanley Collender has been saying in his weekly GovExec.com column, the caps on fiscal 2000 discretionary spending are below what's needed to keep even with fiscal 1999--let alone allow for growth in education and defense accounts. Just to keep current programs even with inflation, the $536 billion cap would have to be raised by $29 billion. If the 1999 "emergency" spending is continued, the cap is $45 billion short of the need.

So we find the Pentagon lobbying for better pay and benefits and launching a radical effort to outsource some 230,000 jobs in the next few years. DoD budgeteers have already assumed savings of about $2 billion a year from outsourcing, though Katherine McIntire Peters reports much skepticism about this estimate in her cover story this month. If the savings aren't realized, the shortfall will make the military that much more hollow.

Other agencies are gearing up as well for an outsourcing push, under mandates of the Federal Activities Inventory Reform Act. By June 30, they're expected to inventory many thousands of jobs that could be commercialized. As Paul Light notes in his column this month, there's talk that Vice President Al Gore may propose more cuts, of perhaps 300,000 jobs, in the civil service. One wonders who will be left to oversee the contractors. Will it be a NASA employee or a contractor who will approve adornment of the privatized space shuttle with the Nike swoosh or McDonald's golden arches? Perhaps it
doesn't matter-we certainly need the money, surplus notwithstanding.

Tim sig2 5/3/96
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