President Donald Trump issued an executive order freezing federal hiring last week because he said the federal workforce had grown too big. The facts, however, do not support Trump's statement. In fact, the number of federal civilian employees has decreased over the past several decades. Also, research completed by the U.S. General Accounting Office found that hiring freezes during both Democratic and Republican administrations don't work in reducing the federal workforce. In fact, the study found that federal hiring freezes reduce government efficiency, reduce services for Americans and may cost tax payers more money.
These are the data from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) of the United States Government whose responsibility it is to keep track of federal employees, civilian and military. When President Ronald Reagan left office in 1989 there were about 3,064,000 civilian federal employees. This decreased to about 2,947,000 employees by the end of President George H.W. Bush's administration, and decreased again to about 2,640,000 employees by the end of President Bill Clinton's administration in 2001. The number of employees increased to 2,786,000 by the end of President George W. Bush's administration in 2009, and then again by the end of President Barack Obama's administration to about 2,804,000 employees, a less than 1 percent increase in the number of federal employees under the Obama administration during his eight years in office. Many of these new hires were border guards.
Thus, from the end of the Reagan administration to the end of the Obama administration, the number of federal civilian employees decreased by about 260,000 or 8.5 percent. During this same time period, the population of United States grew by about 40 percent. These data do not include uniformed military personnel whose number also decreased during this time period. Also not included is the number of employees working in the Legislative and Judicial branches of the government which increased slightly from about 60,000 in 1989 to about 63,000 in 2016, according to the OPM.
The data show that, if anything, the federal government is significantly understaffed given the significant growth of our nation's population during a time when our federal workforce decreased by over 8 percent. In fact, this is one of the problems the federal government has with the ability to serve our ever-growing number of veterans, for example; they don't have enough staff to serve them all effectively. So while Congress makes a lot of noise about doing all they can to serve our veterans, when it comes to providing staff for the VA, they are all talk.
Regarding the effectiveness of federal hiring freezes, it makes for good politics, but poor policy. I would encourage readers to look at the Report by the Comptroller General of the United States published on March 10, 1982. This study looked at federal hiring freezes during Democratic and Republican administrations. The Comptroller determined that general federal hiring freezes, "did not substantially reduce employment," that federal agencies are then forced to use contractors that are more expensive and less experienced than regular employees, that federal agencies are forced to use more overtime during freezes which ends up costing taxpayers more money, that hiring freezes "decreased oversight of federal programs," and that freezes "hindered agency missions and programs."
The report found that "While the Government-wide hiring freezes reviewed by the GAO provided an illusion of control on Federal employment and spending, they had little effect on Federal employment levels, and it is not known whether they saved money" and "in some cases, increased costs to the Government."
Also, according to Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post, the freeze will hurt veterans who make up one out of every three federal employees and "receive a hiring preference when it comes to federal jobs."