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The Off-the-Books Bureaucracy

Thursday January 18th, 2018   •   Posted by Craig Eyermann at 6:30am PST   •  

33088243 - government employee handing over an envelope to a contractor, 1950s film noir style. For years, bureaucrats at U.S. government agencies have been involved in unlawful schemes to pass off significant parts of their workload to contractors who are not bound by the restrictions of the U.S. Constitution.

That’s the gist of a startling claim made by Robert J. Hanrahan Jr., an employee of the National Nuclear Security Administration, who wrote an op-ed on the topic of the U.S. government’s off-the-books bureaucracy at RealClearPolicy.

The civil service’s growth is limited by the budgets enacted by Congress and executed by the president. But many federal agencies do an end run around hiring freezes by hiring contractors instead of federal employees to perform government work. The result? Bureaucracy expands rather than shrinks, congressional oversight is lost, ethical restrictions don’t apply, and government growth continues in defiance of known laws.

Federal law generally prohibits federal agencies from employing contractors to augment the federal workforce. The prohibition on hiring contractors for their specific skills to fill ongoing federal jobs has been law since the 1880s. Without specific authorization from Congress, hiring contractors in this manner is strictly speaking a felony. But many agencies do it nonetheless, as these laws are rarely, if ever enforced.

Through 2015, the U.S. government directly employs over 3.8 million Americans and U.S. residents as direct employees of the U.S. government, which includes the civilian employees of U.S. government agencies, active duty military personnel and people employed by the U.S. Postal Service. The Volcker Alliance, a nonpartisan organization that champions effective management in government activities, estimates that up to an additional 5.3 million people are doing work on behalf of the 3.8 million direct U.S. government employees as contractors or through grants issued by various government agencies. These 5.3 million people are, in effect, the off-the-books employees of the U.S. government’s bureaucracy who aren’t subject to the same laws or ethical constraints required of U.S. government employees.

That’s a situation that nobody voted to support in the U.S. Congress. If legislators turn their attention to adopting strong civil service reforms going forward, curtailing the ability of bureaucrats to offload their work to others outside of government as a means to get around their legal constraints would be a very good place to begin.

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January 2018