Tilting at Windmills

March/April 2012 Good cut, bad cut

By Charles Peters

Mitt Romney is advocating a cut across the board in the number of federal employees. He is right in thinking that the government workforce can be reduced, but across the board? No.

Some agencies are understaffed. Consider the IRS: “The imbalance between the [Internal Revenue Service’s] workforce and its duties is unmanageable,” according to the U.S. government’s official taxpayer advocate, Nina Olson.

The problem is most dangerous at agencies hated by the Republicans, notably the IRS and every regulator. What is most maddening for these agencies is that they find themselves underfunded by the Republicans and then blamed by liberals for being ineffective.

If Romney really wants to downsize government intelligently, his major target should be the actual government employees hidden under the guise of “contractors.” I don’t know of anyone who has found the actual number, but I can assure you it is immense.

As for agencies that should be upsized, one of the most understaffed agencies is the Office of Management and Budget, which has roughly 530 employees tasked with monitoring the entire federal government. With more staff, it not only could find out where cuts can be sensibly made but could also do a better job of finding out whether other agencies are performing their mission and evaluating whether that mission is still needed, with particular attention to the likes of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the former Minerals Management Service, and the immigration services, which have a history of screwing up.

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly and the author of a new book on Lyndon B. Johnson published by Times Books.