New legislation would require the Department of Defense to cut its civilian workforce by 15 percent by 2025, a move that would result in the elimination of over 100,000 federal jobs based on current numbers.
The bill, introduced by Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., Feb. 9 and titled the Rebalance for an Effective Defense Uniform and Civilian Employees Act, would enable the secretary of defense to use voluntary separation and early retirement incentives to encourage that reduction in the coming years.
But that voluntary grace period would be short lived, as the bill mandates that the secretary must initiate involuntary separations by October 2021 if the 15 percent reduction is not met voluntarily. The proposed legislation would only impact civilian employees, not uniformed service members.
According to Office of Personnel Management separation data, on average between 2015 and 2019, just under 82,000 employees left DoD jobs each year, meaning that a standard year’s departures without any new hires would not be enough to voluntarily have the agency meet the 15 percent reduction.
The civilian Senior Executive Service positions at the agency would also be capped at 1,000, and all workforce caps would remain in place until 2029.
In an interview, Calvert said he expects a flat defense budget under President Joe Biden, and while he’s open to “responsible reductions,” he’s averse to cutting uniformed personnel. He believes he can accomplish the cuts through attrition and not firings.
“Like everything else in government, personnel is your biggest cost, and the civilian-to-uniform ratio ... is an all time high,” Calvert said. “Our inability to correct that trend is is eating away at our military, our procurement our readiness, all the above, and so we need to do this.”
There are currently around 1.3 million active-duty military personnel and over 768,000 federal employees working across the DoD components.
The legislation is based on a 2015 report produced by the Defense Business Board, which recommended that the DoD could save significant funds by reducing back-office bureaucracy and waste over the course of five years.
That document recommended pushing a modest early retirement option and limiting the backfill of positions that become vacant due to attrition and retirement.
That report was ultimately buried by agency leadership at the time, though a December 2016 Washington Post investigation uncovered the report and fears within the Defense Department that its contents would cause Congress to cut defense budgets.
According to the report, using retirement and attrition at the DoD to reduce the workforce would result in approximately $46 billion in savings for the agency. The remaining $79 billion in savings could be realized by making changes to federal contracts and IT practices.
Calvert’s bill, though purported to save the full $125 billion promised in the DBB report, only directly addresses the proposed workforce reduction.
The Washington Post article notes that the Army, for example employed approximately 199,661 full-time contractors at an average cost of $189,188 per contractor at the time of the report.
At that same time period, the Army employed 253,225 civilian federal personnel, nearly 83 percent of whom made less than $100,000 per year, according to Office of Personnel Management employment data.
Adding on the $36,795 in benefit costs per federal employee — as determined by Cato Institute Director of Tax Policy Studies Chris Edwards using 2015 Bureau of Economic Analysis data — only around 2 percent of civilian Army employees cost the agency as much as the average contractor.
“The legislation seeks to give the secretary of defense the mandate and the tools necessary to implement cost saving measures without being overly prescriptive,” a spokesperson for Calvert told Federal Times, adding that it, “if made permanent, would affect the contracts and IT support needed within the department required to meet the full $125 billion. This force shaping measure would allow the secretary of defense the discretion to implement many of the measures included in the report, as well as weight performance more heavily to ensure we keep the best and brightest of our civilian workforce.”
The American Federation of Government Employees said in a February 2019 letter opposing an earlier version of the bill that the civilian job reduction objectives not only ignored the cost of contractors when compared with DoD employees, but also ignored several more recent government and industry analyses that emphasized the importance of the current civilian workforce in accomplishing military objectives.
“For any given level of military end strength, the amount of force structure available for operational warfighting requirements it reduced to the extent that military are siphoned off to perform functions that civilians can and should perform at less cost,” the letter states.
An AFGE spokesperson also noted that sections of fiscal year 2021 funding legislation and defense authorization, “prohibit reductions of the civilian workforce without regard to impacts on readiness, lethality, military force structure, stress of the force, operational effectiveness and fully burdened costs.”
Calvert’s counterpart on the House Defense Appropriation Subcommittee, Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., also worried over the impact on talent retention at the agency:
“Ranking Member Calvert and I have discussed his proposal to reduce defense spending by cutting the civilian employee workforce. His proposal could lead to some of the most talented and committed DoD public servants losing their jobs. While we agree there is excess defense spending, my focus is on making smart investments that yield demonstrable outcomes by cutting waste and ending subsidies for outdated and unnecessary programs and facilities. In my view, the existing Department of Defense civilian workforce is mission critical to ensuring our national security.”
Calvert said he is open to cutting contracting costs, in partnership with McCollum.
“I understand the growth in contracts, and that’s a problem too,” Calvert said. “I don’t think we’ve really looked at some of these contracts as closely as we should ... and I think we ought to go out with an open mind.”
The bill is unlikely to gain White House support either, as President Joe Biden has promised both before and after his inauguration to protect federal workers from the kinds of removals proposed under the Trump administration and to encourage more qualified personnel to start government jobs.
Congress reporter for Defense News Joe Gould contributed to this report.
Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.