The People Behind the Federal Spending Cut Dilemmas
Before slashing federal jobs, lawmakers should think about the mission voters would like the government to perform.
Everyone knows the basic story about why it’s so tough to cut government spending. Entitlements take up nearly three-fourths of all federal spending, and squeezing cuts out of the other one-fourth of the budget creates a profound dilemma. Nothing makes that more evident than a clear-eyed look at where federal employees work.
More than two-thirds of feds do jobs that realistically can’t be cut. There’s Social Security and services for veterans, as well as homeland security functions (including Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Citizenship and Immigration Services, and the Coast Guard). We’re already having a hard time staffing air traffic control towers, especially going into the summer travel season, so we can’t cut the Federal Aviation Administration. And, of course, there’s the Internal Revenue Service, the agency everyone loves to hate but that collects the money that funds everything else.
That adds up to 37% percent of all federal employees. Then add to that the civilian employees who manage defense policy and the armed services. That’s another 34%. We can certainly find economies there, but not without looking carefully at defense functions and programs, and no one seems in a mood to do that. Combine these two large buckets of federal employees, and we get 71% of the federal workforce. We can’t empty the bucket for the functions we wouldn’t want to cut.
There aren’t many employees left in the rest of government, and cutting them would clobber key functions. No vacationer wants to drive up to the national park gate and find a “park closed” sign. No homeowner would want a major fire in a national forest to threaten their home. Farmers count on getting their payments from the Agriculture Department on time and coastal residents want good forecasts from the National Weather Service as they near hurricane season.
So when it comes to making cuts, most federal employees do jobs we can’t cut. Cutting the employees that budget-cutters might consider wouldn’t save much money. The same is true, of course, for the programs in the discretionary part of the government that they manage.
In fact, when pollsters start drilling down into the specifics, support for cutting spending evaporates when Americans are asked about which programs they would eliminate. A 2019 Pew Research Center survey asked about 13 different policy areas. There wasn’t support for cutting anything, from education to foreign aid. In fact, Americans favored increasing spending in every area, except for assistance to the unemployed. And that was before COVID and its effects on the economy.
There’s nothing that would undermine trust in government more than for the government to have programs the people want but that they can’t get because decisionmakers have gutted the people we need to deliver them.
Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, for example, in a May 24 memo to colleagues urged Republican leaders to hold the line. “We want to cut funding for the woke federal bureaucracy interfering with Americans’ ability to live free and prosper economically to pre-COVID levels,” he said. But these numbers of federal employees are the pre-COVID levels.
We can’t cut the employees who do things that no one really wants to cut. That’s a non-starter. We can cut the employees who do other things in the discretionary part of the budget, but that wouldn’t raise much money and would create problems that would be hard to defend.
Or we can cut employees in the hope of undermining programs that some officials don’t like, but that never saves much money and always annoys people who depend on those programs. We can make across-the-board cuts, but budget wonks know that there’s no such thing as an across-the-board cut, because there inevitably are programs that no one can politically touch.
There probably has never been a more treacherous policy minefield. But when it comes to finding our way through it, the worst thing we could do is to look for a shortcut by slashing federal employees without thinking about the mission we want them to perform.
Donald F. Kettl is the co-author, with William D. Eggers, of Bridgebuilders: How Government Can Transcend Boundaries to Solve Big Problems.