Horse Sense #144

The REAL Deep State

I have worked for decades with the federal government and can honestly say one thing: there is a deep state. They are the people who do what is necessary to keep the country running, no matter what the politics of the day are. To most, these people are a "shadow government." Citizens do not know who they are or what they do, which in a way, is a good thing. These Civil Service members are dedicated to the country and to the missions of their agencies. They do their work quietly and well. We may discount their efforts, but, like we normally do not think about breathing, we would notice if they stopped doing a good job!

The Civil Service was established in 1871, but it was completely by appointment. By 1909 2/3 of civil service jobs were based on merit. Now, almost all of them are. The highest level positions (several hundred) are still filled by political appointees. The very highest ones require confirmation by the Senate. Civil Service and military employees are governed by the Hatch Act of 1939 and are prohibited from engaging in political activities while performing their official duties. Employee behavior is governed by other laws as well. When you work for the government, you no longer have the rights of a normal citizen. If you are in the military, you do not have the basic rights of citizens (for instance the 5th Amendment protection against) self-incrimination. Unlike normal jobs, violating rules and procedures can be a federal crime and land you in federal prison. Misspending government funds is a common way to get in deep trouble. Most States follow the federal model, and their employees also have fewer rights than normal citizens.

The federal government is the nation's single largest employer. There are over 1.5 million workers, not counting the 550,000 US Postal Service employees, which operates independently. These numbers would be much larger if you also counted contractors and temporary hires. The Feds employ about 12% of government employees, the States 24%, and local governments 63%. By sending a large part of the tax money they collect back out again to be administered by the States, the federal government reduces its staffing needs. Some States actually get more money back from the Washington than they pay in federal taxes. Only 15% or so of the federal workforce is in the DC metro area.

There are 15 executive branch agencies, hundreds of sub agencies, and lots of independent committees, advisory boards, and other working bodies, a far cry from the early days of our republic. We need these agencies to deal with a vastly larger population and land area (in 1776 about 2.5 million people and 864,764 square miles; in 2018 about 328 million people and 3.8 million square miles). We also need these agencies to deal with all the new professions and technologies we now have. Satisfying those needs takes a *lot* of people!

One of the common complaints about government is that it can and should be smaller. This is usually because someone is complaining about the amount of taxes they have to pay. He/She do not know what their "shadow government" is doing. He/she may discount their efforts entirely and think that they are doing nothing useful. Of course, this is true of anything. People would much rather not pay for something they do not think they will use. For the things they do use, they want the cost to be zero! It doesn't work that way. Government agencies are staffed because lots of different people need or want lots of different things. Government jobs are often outsourced to private industry. Many believe these jobs can be done better, faster, and cheaper by the private sector. Often, this is not the case. Regrettably, it also does not correct the misperception that federal government employees are not earning their keep. And, while our government is designed to be transparent, contractors generally are not. Whereas government employees are constrained by law, government contractors do not have the same constraints. For example, they can lobby for more rules that benefit themselves at the expense of government employees. There are agencies that are heavily populated by contract employees. In fact, there are entire government reservations run by contractors (i.e., the US national laboratory system). Contractors are utilized to accomplish the mission of the agency. It can be surprising how many contractors an agency uses, but I could find no official count on how many people are contracted to work for the government.

Contracting for specific projects is smart, but outsourcing too much is dangerous. Government employees are more flexible and can perform multiple types of work. Contractors are limited to the terms of the contract. Many contracts are rebid every few years. I knew of one employee of an airport contractor who had worked for seven companies in ten years, never moving his desk. Paying a premium for a long term contract employee reduces flexibility, not a good idea even if you do not like "big government."

Civil Service employees tend to be highly motivated. They often accept lower pay and benefits than private industry counterparts. They accept fewer rights than normal citizens and suffer claims of sloth and incompetence from the people whom they serve. They are motivated by their mission and the opportunity to serve their country. Right now, many of them are working without pay or the support of their furloughed coworkers. They may or may not receive this lost pay, and, if they do, it may be delayed for a long time. Those who are furloughed are not being paid, but they cannot vacation or take sick leave. There may be no way to request leave, and even if they could, they might forfeit any pay they might receive later, that is, if they get paid at all. Furloughed workers must be ready to work as soon as the shutdown ends. Meanwhile, critical projects stall, and citizens have no one to turn to for help. The cost of a government shutdown is enormous monetarily. It is also hard on your government employees. They may have trouble paying their bills like a kid's tuition or a mortgage payment. They cannot.... You get the idea. Think of yourself in their position. Your morale would be terrible too. You would feel devalued.

What can you do? Thank your government workers, the members of the deep state. They are the mission oriented producers of a modern, dynamic, efficient government. Also, make an extra effort to thank those who are working and furloughed during this government shut down without pay. And do not forget the government contractors. They are suffering as well and perform many critical government functions. Contractors usually are not repaid for downtime. Some small businesses contractors may go under due to this shutdown.

To get back to the breathing analogy, not breathing might be OK for a short period of time, but extend that time and it gets scary.

©2019 Tony Stirk, Iron Horse