Welcome to the 2% year: Not as much for fewer people

For too many federal agencies, staffing levels don't reflect real mission needs

If you want to show off knowledge at the upcoming barbeque season, bookmark the Congressional Budget Office website. CBO calculates that in fiscal 2025, the government will spend more on national debt interest than on defense. A hundred billion dollars more. Spending will rise, but agency staffing doesn’t  reflect that.

One important reason: Mandatory spending is driving the increase, and that’s not precisely connected to staffing requirements.

In all, CBO says, the government will take in just shy of $5 trillion and spend just shy of $6.8 trillion next year. With the debt growing relentlessly, in 10 years so-called discretionary spending — operating civilian and defense agencies — will roughly equal interest payments.

Non-discretionary spending next year, at $4 trillion, stands at more than double the spending Congress is still futzing over, about $1.76 trillion.

Net net? A bag of potato chips now costs $5. And federal employees will get a 2% raise next year.

Members of the Armed Service will get 4.5% pay raise, but their ranks will shrink. Defense spending would only rise 1% under the 2025 proposal. No inflation offset there. The Defense Department is crimping on planned acquisitions, and will cut forces. For instance, the Army’s end strength will fall.  Congress wants an end strength of 442,300 troops. The Army says its force structure is now designed for 494,000. So it’s “restructuring” in part by eliminating what it calls “hollow” elements in the structure. The explanation for all of this sounds counterintuitive, though: It plans to move from counterinsurgency and counterterrorism to “large scale combat operations” by essentially dropping the equivalent of two divisions.

The Navy is requesting an end strength of 332,300 sailors, down by 14,700 authorized for 2023, and down from the request of 346,000 for the current fiscal year. The Air Force asks for 8,000 fewer airmen next year, cutting both active duty and reserves.

I guess this is the way the nation will push back against China, Russia, North Korea, Houthis and the rest. We’ll have to take the administration’s, the military’s and Congress’ word for it.

Projected end strength will vary in both directions for the civilian 2% crowd. VA, which has been on a hiring blitz for a few years, may shed 10,000 people. The IRS, Social Security and Energy will add staff. CISA wants to add 122 people to deal with the expected results of an industry incident reporting rule just out for comment. Maybe they’ll settle for 120.

Regular readers know I follow the Bureau of Prisons closely. The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents many of the correctional officers and other prison staff, has expressed disappointment in the 2025 request. From what I can tell, the administration has asked for $8.6 billion for 2025, down from the $8.8 billion it requested for 2024.  The president of Council of Prisons Local 33, Brandy White, testified last month that authorized prison staffing has fallen by 8,900 to 34,470.

White told the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Criminal Justice and Counterterrorism that of the authorized subset of correctional officers, 20,446, only 12,300 positions are filled. A shortfall of 8,000 officers. And don’t forget, the U.S. has 157,000 individuals in federal custody, some of whom are not nice.

In its budget request for BOP, the Justice Department  states, “The FY 2025 current services level funds critical base operations, such as increases in employee salaries and benefits, as well as increases in medical, utility, and food expenses.” Crucially, the budget request includes “funding dedicated to continuing to increase hiring and retention incentives at its most affected institutions.” The officers say the retention pay boosts — withdrawn from the Thomson, Illinois facility — must remain lest the staffing shortfall expand even further.

It’s up to others to figure out what functions the government should do or not do. I contend, though, that if it does something, it should have enough people to do it right.

Nearly Useless Factoid

By: Michele Sandiford

In 1802, a little over a decade after its creation, the federal government employed 3,905 people. By 1826, that number had more than doubled to 10,415.

Source: The Brookings Institution


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