Cutting the Federal Workforce Is Harder Than It Sounds

The Trump administration has said it wants to make cuts to the overall size of the federal workforce, however, the author says that that this may be harder to do than it would seem on the surface.

The Trump administration and the Congress have been talking about reducing the size of the federal workforce. Given that the President and many members of Congress ran on a platform of doing just that, it should not come as a surprise to anyone.

Like many things in life, this one is harder than it might appear to be. There are 3 reasons why I believe that to be true.

Number 1

The “government” is unpopular with many folks, but specific programs/agencies are not.

An interesting 2013 Pew Research Center report looked at how Americans view federal agencies. They found that wide majorities had favorable views of the US Postal Service, the Department of Defense, the Centers for Disease Control, NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency, and several other agencies/programs.

So – while there may be widespread support for the abstract idea of cutting the size of the federal workforce, it is likely that many of the cuts that could be made may not be popular.

There’s an old expression in Washington: “Don’t cut you, don’t cut me – cut that fella behind the tree.” If cuts start to target specific (and popular) agencies, we may see public pressure to protect investments in those agencies and programs.

Number 2

The desire to cut some programs/agencies is coupled with an interest in growing others. Math still works, so when the growing agencies and shrinking agencies are combined, the numbers do not always move in the intended direction.

The best example was the Reagan administration. President Reagan came to office with a clear message that he planned to shrink the government, and said “A government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth.”

So what happened during his administration? OPM data show that the Executive Branch (including the Postal Service) workforce numbered 2,821,000 in 1980. After 8 years of cutting civilian agencies and growing the Department of Defense, at the end of 1988, the workforce had grown to 3,054,000. The growth in Defense far outstripped cuts that were made to other agencies.

President Trump has called for 15,000 new employees (5,000 Border Patrol Agents and 10,000 in ICE) in the Department of Homeland Security. Secretary of Defense James Mattis has called for growing the armed forces, while the Army and Navy have expressed interest in focusing on military readiness. It is likely DOD will find some areas to economize and work more efficiently, but historically growth in uniformed personnel and attention to readiness have resulted in a larger DOD civilian workforce.

When we couple the potential for growth in Defense and Homeland Security with other programs that are hard to cut (such as Veterans benefits and health care), large parts of the federal workforce come off the table. DOD, DHS and VA represent 1,302,000 of the current 1,923,000 federal employees. If we estimate growth in DHS at 5% (adding the 15,000 President Trump plans, while eliminating a big chunk of overhead jobs), and 5% at DOD, while keeping VA at current levels, the workforce would grow by almost 50,000. Cutting those 50,000 from the other agencies would be an across-the-board cut of 8%.

To get to a reduction in the overall federal workforce, we have to add a much larger cut than 8%. For example, a 10% cut of the total federal workforce would require a 39% cut in agencies other than DOD, DHS and VA. If we exempt other agencies (for example, Treasury Secretary Mnuchin has said he wants to increase the IRS workforce to improve revenue collection) the cuts in remaining agencies become even larger.

Number 3

The final reason is jobs in congressional districts.

While it may be popular to bash Washington, the fact is that the majority of federal jobs are not in the National Capital Region. They are in Florida (73,000), California (131,000), Georgia (67,000), Pennsylvania (52,000), Ohio (45,000) and other states. When political decisions become hard facts and constituents start to lose their jobs, there is always political pressure to protect the employment of constituents.

It clearly is not easy to make big reductions in the federal workforce. Perhaps the desire to reduce the size of government will overcome the popularity of many agencies and the interest in protecting the jobs of constituents. In politics, almost anything is possible.

This column was originally published on Jeff Neal's blog,, and has been reposted here with permission from the author. Visit to read more of Jeff's articles regarding federal human resources and other current events along with his insights on reforming the HR system.

About the Author

Jeff Neal is author of the blog and was previously the chief human capital officer at the Homeland Security Department and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.