Government by proxy Definition
Editor’s Note: Government failure is something everyone complains about, but does little to address. Over the next two weeks, FixGov will review work on government reform: identifying problems in the federal government and offering solutions to get government back in working order. In this first installment, Elaine Kamarck looks at two works: John DiIulio’s
Bring Back the Bureaucrats
In John J. DiIulio Jr.’s new book he calls the modern American government “Leviathan by Proxy.” Leviathan by Proxy refers to the fact that in recent decades the U.S. government has “…increased its spending more than fivefold while the full time civilian workforce remained largely flat.” Rather than hire more civil servants the government has contracted out an enormous amount of its work in what DiIluio calls “… a uniquely American, superficially antistatist form of big government.”
If you pair DiIulio’s new book with an important article by Paul Glastris and Haley Sweetland Edwards that appeared in the summer 2014 issue of The Washington Monthly called “The Big Lobotomy, ” it becomes evident that the executive branch is not the only branch that’s in trouble. While the executive branch has been outsourcing its work to private and not-for-profit contractors, the Legislative branch has been cutting professional staff, reducing staff at organizations like GAO and CRS which were designed to help Congress analyze issues, and moving staff from committees to district offices—all of which they argue constitute a “self-lobotomy.” Glastris and Edwards argue that, like the executive branch, Congress has also outsourced too much. The decrease in professional staff has led to a “…massive falloff in congressional oversight.” Policy expertise has been outsourced to ideologically motivated think tanks and to K Street.
In general these authors’ appraisals of these trends are accurate. I can quibble with DiIulio’s argument by pointing out that the big gap between spending and bureaucrats doesn’t really take into account the enormous increases in productivity that resulted from the federal government entering the Internet age. For instance many government agencies have moved information and transactions that used to be done by employees in offices to the Internet—though notable exceptions, like OPM’s undergound processing facility, remain. But his analysis of how things are working on the discretionary side of the budget is powerful. For instance, at one point, the Department of Homeland Security had more contractors than employees. The Department of Energy spends 90% of its budget on contracts that implement its important nuclear missions.
But the real question is does any of this matter? Has outsourcing gone too far? DiIlulio points out that the massive outsourcing of government has not improved it—quite the contrary. Contracting has been implicated in a cascade of failures, from the botched health care roll out to the Veterans Administration scandals. And Congress has become so dysfunctional that it can’t even pass appropriations bills and a budget on time—let alone play the proper role in the system of checks and balances. At issue is the question of accountability. DiIluio argues that we need more bureaucrats and that the ones we have are stretched too thin to hold the many contractors accountable. And Glastris and Edwards argue that the depletion of talent on the Hill, especially in the Committee staffs has led to a “…massive falloff in congressional oversight.”
Figuring out how far is too far is complicated by the fact that there are no official statistics on the number of government contractors. Estimates are that there are as many as 7.6 million contract employees and as many as 2.8 million grant-based employees. This total, over 10 million, is more than twice the 4.3 million federal employees, including uniformed military. One of DiIluio’s suggestions is to establish a new, specialized federal office to gather data on “…contractor personnel, productivity and compliance.”