In a Tuesday morning dispatch about President Donald Trump's federal hiring freeze, the Associated Press's Matthew Barakat presented a quote from Trump Press Secretary Sean Spicer and followed with a statistic which he wants readers to believe refutes Spicer's claim. This statistic does no such thing, but I expect, even though it's remarkably lazy and misleading, that it will become a very popular establishment press meme.
Spicer's statement, as relayed in part:
Trump spokesman Sean Spicer said the freeze ensures taxpayers get effective and efficient government and said it "counters the dramatic expansion of the federal workforce in recent years."
Barakat's next sentence:
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Statistics from the Office of Personnel Management, though, show that the number of executive branch employees hasn't been this low since 1965, and that the number of employees has stayed more or less steady in the last 15 years.
Of course, it's quite possible for there to be a "dramatic expansion in the federal workforce" in certain areas even in the absence of a large, or even any, overall increase. That's certainly the case here.
The overall figures for federal employment which Barakat appears to have consulted show that the federal government had a total of 2.496 million civilian employees in 1965. The federal workforce exploded in 1966 to 2.726 million as the Johnson administration's War on Poverty kicked into full gear. The total workforce, at 2.663 million in 2014, has never fallen back to below 2.6 million.
The problem with these overall figures is that they mask significant headcount reductions at the U.S. Postal Service (which, though considered "independent," it still considered part of the executive branch and is reportedly not exempt from Trump's freeze). Those USPS workforce reductions, obviously necessary in light of technological changes (and, though significant, probably not sufficient in the circumstances), have been largely offset by what Spicer correctly identified as "dramatic" increases in many other areas of the executive branch:
The table above, extracted from a larger table which shows all years from 2005 to 2015, reveals that during just the first two years of the Obama administration, the cabinet-level (i.e., non-postal) full-time civilian workforce increased by over 9 percent. Those happen to have been the two years during which the Democratic Party controlled the White House and both houses of Congress and created the first two of several trillion-dollar budget deficits. Imagine that.
After that, despite all the blathering about "austerity" and the evils of sequestration we heard from the Obama administration after Republicans took over the House in January 2011 (even though sequestration was Obama's idea, and its enactment ultimately resulted in the White House playing a losing game of chicken), the federal non-postal headcount has basically remained steady.
Overall, ten departments saw significant (defined as greater than 5 percent or more) increases in headcount from 2008 to 2015. The 37 percent leap seen at the Department of Veteran Affairs is especially galling, given the agency's "rampant dysfunction and corruption," still present more than two years after its appointment-scheduling scandal broke.
As to the "more or less steady in the last 15 years" element of Barakat's claim, this graph from the Federal Reserve in St. Louis makes a mockery of it:
The graph shows that the Bush 43 administration ramped up non-postal federal employment during 2002 and 2003, likely as result of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The statistic leveled off until 2007, after which it shot up like a rocket during the next three years. The first year of that three-year increase, 2008, "just so happens" to be the first federal budget year during which the Democrat Party controlled the House of Representatives (the previous Republican-majority passed the fiscal 2007 budget in 2006). Although the 2010 value is somewhat inflated because of that year's census, the "dramatic" expansion" Spicer cited is still quite clear.
Meanwhile, from January 1999 to January 2014, USPS shed over 300,000 seasonally adjusted jobs. Employment there has picked up by over 30,000 since then, for reasons which hardly seem justified based on its continued operating losses. So Trump's inclusion of the Postal Service in the scope of his freeze appears warranted.
Barakat's AP report otherwise spent the bulk of its verbiage with the thoughts of a "union officer with the National Federation of Federal Employees" and that union's president. Naturally, they think the freeze, which will last no more than 90 days, for heaven's sake — something the AP reporter also failed to note — is a terrible idea.
Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.