Should contractors count when feds want to cut heads?

The size of the contractor workforce is again drawing the attention of Capitol Hill.

A House hearing held May 26 to examine the size of the federal workforce resulted in no clear conclusion about whether the number of federal employees should be reduced. However, what did become more apparent is that discussions about the size of the workforce might need to include contractors.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee's Federal Workforce Subcommittee held the hearing, titled “Rightsizing the Federal Workforce.” Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.) called the current federal workforce “bloated” and “fiscally unsustainable.”

But Democrats on the panel argued that any debate over the size of the federal workforce must include contractors.

“It’s obscene that we’re focusing today on the 2.5 million employees of the federal government, while completely ignoring the 10.5 million contractors … that work for this government,” said Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.), the subcommittee’s ranking member. “If we’re serious about reducing costs, we need to look at the contractor community.”

Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) and Rep. Thomas Marino (R-Pa.) testified about recent bills they have introduced that would shrink the size of the federal workforce through attrition.


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Lummis’ bill, the Federal Workforce Reduction Act of 2011, would put a hiring freeze on all federal agencies except the Defense, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs departments. The legislation would take effect in fiscal 2012 and would require the government to hire only one replacement for every two federal employees who retire or leave the government.

Marino’s bill, the Federal Hiring Freeze Act of 2011, would freeze most federal hiring until the director of the Office of Management and Budget “determines that a federal budget deficit no longer exists.” The bill would allow for “common-sense exceptions,” Marino said, during times of war and for national security concerns.

Lummis and Marino said their bills are not intended to be an attack on federal employees. And Marino explained that these legislative proposals are just one step in the process of getting the nation’s fiscal house in order.

“A hiring freeze is not the silver bullet that will unilaterally lead us out of this crisis,” Marino said. “It is a start.”

But other witnesses, echoing Lynch, said that contractors -- who are paid from taxpayer funds as are agency employees -- might need to be included in any measures that affect the workforce. At the least, the witnesses said, the question should be part of the discussion.

Andrew Biggs, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Policy Research, agreed that there is not enough known about how the contractor workforce functions. He added that although he is confident that the government could function with a smaller workforce, looking at only one group of employees to bring down costs is "sort of kidding ourselves."

William Dougan, national president of the National Federation of Federal Employees and chairman of the Federal Workers Alliance, also said contractors need to be included in the workforce size debate.

But Dougan explained that what concerns him most is that lawmakers have only been talking about saving money without accounting for the work that will not be completed if the workforce is cut. “There is no accountability for what is the impact [on] services,” Dougan told lawmakers. “What are we not going to do and what are we going to do less of.”

Although Dougan expressed opposition to what he described as the “arbitrary staffing limitations” that would be imposed by Lummis’ and Marino’s bills, he said he is not entirely against downsizing. However, he said that the first piece of business in the size debate should be determining what government services will no longer provide if the workforce does get smaller.

About the Author

Alyah Khan is a staff writer covering IT policy.

Reader Comments

Tue, May 31, 2011

My recent experience, as a contractor in the vanguard of the preemptive budget cuts at USDA, is that contractors are the first to go. It doesn't matter if we are the ones with organization history amid countless reorganizations, or if we do the work for unqualified and disinterested Federal 'team leads'. The Feds take the credit while the government's 'house elves' make things happen. The joke is when the house elves are gone then the Feds will have to do their own work - and will actually need to learn how to do it.

Fri, May 27, 2011 SuzieQ Somewhere in Silicon Valley

What the heck is Congress talking about? Are they THAT clueless? The FIRST casualties of cutbacks for any agency is the Contracting Personnel. When told the agency needs to "reduce" manpower by a percentage...the contracting officer asks the Program Managers to provide "like=kind" cuts. Until Congress gets with its own program and "understands" the real world, they need to stop making statements that are not only foolish but show ignorance of processes they voted to uphold. AND, it would be super nice (but I'm not holding my breath) for Congress and Agency heads to recognize what Contractors are DOING RIGHT. There's plenty of really good contractors and programs providing deliverables on-time, within budget and with added value.

Fri, May 27, 2011 AreThey4Real? Virginia

As a former govvie, turned contractor, I can tell you that Congress doesn't have a clue what goes on in the trenches (this, I suspect, is not a huge revelation). You can't fix the country's financial woes by limiting the number of employees (either contractors or gov't workers). You especially can't fix it if all you propose is limiting the number of workers, but not addressing the systemic problems within the GS (and other pay) system. There needs to be a way to weed out the dead wood in government service and not allow people to tread water for the last 10-15 years of their career because they "put the time in." Case in point, during my time as a GS 12, the number of maxed out 13's and 14's that I observed doing nothing (or worse, sitting in their cubicles and reading books) is staggering. Yet, when a conscientious manager (and a retired military officer at that) tried to remove these oxygen thieves from the organization, THEY were the one who came under the gun and ultimately left the organization (and became a contractor). The dead wood is STILL THERE. These are just my observations, but until situations like these are addressed, Congress is being disingenuous by putting forth bills to limit the federal workforce. Tie a person's position to their performance like the rest of us in the real world and end the current inefficient/ineffective system (GS).

Fri, May 27, 2011

Reality is that FedGov uses contractors as subcontract/shadow employees. I'll vote for anyone that passes a law saying federal employees = the number of warm bodies in the building every day. That is the only honest way to count them.

Fri, May 27, 2011 The Good Doctor Bethesda, MD

Contractors are included automatically when they cut funding across the board. These budget cuts directly affect programs and contracts that are being worked. If the government starts dictating the number of contractors included in the workforce, then now we'll get into a battle of "You want me to do X with Y number of people". In a Firm Fixed Price Model...I can do the job with 100 giraffes, or 2 contractors...It doesn't matter, as long as the work gets done, and the requirements are met.

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