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How Big is America's "Big Government?"

Brookings Institution senior fellow John Dilullio introduced a paper last week that provides "10 questions and answers about America's Big Government" writing:

"The ongoing debate over the Trump administration’s plan to freeze federal hiring has thus far involved arguments and “alternative facts” from those on both sides of the question. This obscures certain hard truths about America’s “Big Government” and its real federal bureaucracy.  What follows is an (I hope brief and user-friendly but duly detailed) attempt to mediate that debate and spotlight certain deeply inconvenient truths about the character and quality of present-day American government and “we the people” to whom it is accountable."

To the first question, "What is "Big Government?", he says it "refers to three features of the national or federal government headquartered in Washington, D.C.," specifically:

  • How much it spends
  • How much it does, and
  • How many people it employs

He then proceeds by asking such questions as how much has federal government spending grown; has Washington been doing more or just spending more; what about growth in the federal government workforce and in the ranks of federal bureaucrats; and, how did post-1960 United States have a five-fold increase in national government spending, establish seven new cabinet agencies, effect a steady expansion in programs and regulations, and yet experience zero growth in the workforce responsible for stewarding trillions of tax dollars and translating 80,000-plus pages of words into action?

That's where things get interesting since the federal government has "had roughly the same number of federal workers, not counting uniformed military personnel and postal workers, for the past 57 years." The growth in government since 1960 has come about by using "three species of administrative proxies," specifically:

  • state and local governments
  • for-profit businesses
  • nonprofit organizations

While the federal workforce "hovered around two million full-time bureaucrats" since 1960, "the total number of state and local government employees tripled to more than 18 million workers." Adjusting for inflation, Dilullio points out that "federal grants-in-aid for the states increased more than 10-fold. "For example, the Environmental Protection Agency has its approximately 20,000 employees spread across its Washington, D.C. headquarters and 10 regions. However, he says "90 percent of EPA programs are administered A-to-Z by state government agencies that employ thousands of environmental protection workers."

He also says there are "thorny data issues" involved in obtaining exact numbers of contractor employees, but says, "the best available estimates indicate that the total number of federal contract employees increased from about five million in 1990 to about 7.5 million in 2013." The bottom line? Dilulio says, "let’s call it 14 million in all today versus four million back when Ike was saying farewell (in 1960)."

For the seventh Q&A, he discusses the "one must-know fact" about Big Government. The answer:

"It is that “Big Government” in America today is both debt-financed and proxy-administered.

"The first half of that essential fact is well known, much discussed, and much debated.  For all but five post-1960 years, the federal government has run deficits, and the national debt is now bordering on $20 trillion.  But the latter half of that essential fact—rampant proxy administration—is little known, poorly understood, and, except in certain moments of crisis, ignored."

Questions 8 (why both deft-financed and proxy-administered), 9 (how does the real federal bureaucracy and bureaucracy-by-proxy perform), and 10 (spending on defense contractors vs. spending on entire federal civilian workforce) are worth reading in the original with one exception. He notes that according to a study by Professor Donald Kettl, "28 of the 32 programs on that GAO high-risk list were among the very federal programs with the highest proxy-administration quotients."

In conclusion, Dilulio writes:

"But “we the people” are a half-century into the errors and delusions behind our debt-financed, proxy-administered “Big Government” and the real federal bureaucracy.

"In Federalist Paper No. 68, Alexander Hamilton, who remains the most finance savvy leader in American history, and who was by no means allergic to stronger national government, lectured that “the true test of good government is its aptitude and tendency to produce a good administration.”

"For all the partisan and ideological fights, and across all the usual demographic and regional lines, Americans and their leaders are today ever more strongly united, not badly divided—united, that is, in failing Hamilton’s good government test."

John Dilulio's paper is a fairly fast read -- here's the link again, and be sure to bookmark it so you can send it to your friends. He uses a lot of charts and tables to drive home his short answers. After reading questions 8, 9, and 10, you will be ready to write your member of Congress about America's "Big Government" problem. Contact information is available at the Library of Congress' Congress.gov. Taxpayers living in Virginia's Arlington County can contact:

  • Senator Mark Warner (D) -- write to him or call (202) 224-2023
  • Senator Tim Kaine (D) -- write to him or call (202) 224-4024
  • Representative Don Beyer (D) -- write to him or call (202) 225-4376

Ask for a written response. And tell them ACTA sent you.

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