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Editorial: Congress must help ensure a responsible drawdown

Apr. 28, 2013 - 01:01PM   |  
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The federal drawdown of the twenty-teens is here.

Federal hiring is plummeting — down a third in the last three years, the result of severe, governmentwide cuts. Federal retirements, meanwhile, are exploding: January-through-March figures are 51 percent higher than the same period last year and twice as high as the same period three years ago. This is the result of the U.S. Postal Service drawdown and an aging workforce increasingly demoralized by pay and benefits cuts, more stressful workplaces, poor leadership and a hostile Congress.

And who knows what impact all this may have on the quality of new job recruits in the future?

The effect could be a disaster for the federal workforce and, ultimately, the public.

That disaster — if it occurs — is a repeat of what occurred during the government downsizing in the 1990s after the end of the Cold War.

Between 1991 and 2000, the federal workforce shrank 13 percent — from about 3 million executive branch and postal employees to 2.6 million.

That drawdown prompted many of the government’s most talented and experienced employees — many of whom the government did not want to lose — to leave for the private sector.

With the talent drain came increased costs. Many employees took buyouts and early retirements, then went to work for contractors who charged the government higher rates to do the same work.

The loss of experienced front-line employees at agencies that served the public, such as the Veterans Affairs Department and Social Security Administration, led to swollen backlogs — so agencies had to spend more to whittle those down.

Support and oversight staffs — such as human resources, information technology, procurement, auditing and accounting — were thinned, requiring agencies to outsource more. The line between what was inherently governmental and what wasn’t became blurred. Inexperienced procurement staffs were unable to adapt to fast-growing workloads sparked by 9/11 and the two wars that followed.

Today, we have early signs of what staffing shortages will mean: longer waits for air travel, reduced service hours for the public, growing backlogs and more.

Budget cuts themselves are not the problem. if applied smartly, they can serve as important incentives to reinvent government for the better.

But that is not happening. That in large part is because Congress has failed to pass honest government spending bills, as opposed to continuing resolutions that simply extend previous years’ spending levels. The result is that budget cuts — and the staffing cuts they create — are imposed willy-nilly across the board. That makes effective drawdown planning impossible.

Such budget cuts can only go so far, after which they degrade all missions and programs.

What is needed is for Congress — in partnership with the executive branch — to spell out which programs and missions can be axed or scaled down, so cuts can be made in a smart and deliberate way.

Congress needs to be a partner in this drawdown, not an obstacle to meaningful spending reform, which is what it is now.

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