- Historic Sites
What Made The Government Grow
…and grow, and grow, from almost no employees to three million. Don’t blame the welfare state, or the military; the truth is much more interesting.
September 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 5
Once embedded in the federal structure, these enterprises remained alive and often growing throughout the two decades after 1970, a period during which the Republicans controlled the White House for sixteen years, the Senate for six of those sixteen, but the House of Representatives for none at all. The turn to Washington for assistance took many forms, not all of them exclusively the design of liberals. The National Environmental Policy Act (1969); the Occupational Safety and Health Act (1970); the Consumer Product Safety, Water Pollution Control, and Equal Employment Opportunity Acts (1972); a Federal Energy Administration Act; and measures providing for important subsidies to mass transit and to school systems (1974)—all were passed on Nixon’s watch, though sometimes over his objections or his veto. These acts put more power and personnel into the Department of Transportation, dating from 1966, and into two more cabinet departments created in the seventies, Energy (1977) and Education (1979), the latter bringing on the renaming of Health, Education, and Welfare as the Department of Health and Human Services. (The final department of the current fourteen-member cabinet, Veterans Affairs, was fashioned in 1988 under Ronald Reagan.) Nor can any recent history of the United States overlook the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, or the Toxic Substances Control Act, conferring fresh responsibilities on the FDA, or various laws mandating federal aid to local law enforcers.
THE FACT is, people did not truly want government “off their backs.” They expected it to act in their behalf—though not necessarily that of others.
The message of the seventies, at least, and possibly of the eighties too, was that America’s expectations of the federal government were still high, even though the rhetoric of the Great Society had been stilled. Whatever politicians might say, the “moderate” voters sent back congressional majorities to enlist Washington in keeping the air and water clean, the roads open, gas pumps flowing, retirement funds protected, workplaces safe, opportunities equal, the poor fed, students’ noses in books, and businessmen’s thumbs off the scale. Ripples of increase spread down the governmental chain; state and local government personnel boomed from 10.14 million in 1970 to 15.26 million in 1990.
The impact of the many new or expanded federal government ventures on the distribution of its employees resists easy description. Bear with me for one final flurry of numbers. A look at the statistics for 1976, the year of the bicentennial, shows a Defense Department still employing more than a million civilians, the United States Postal Service 675,653, and the Veterans’ Administration nearly 222,313. The Treasury Department was 125,600 strong, having gained 33,079 workers in only the preceding six years. Health, Education, and Welfare counted 155,096 in its ranks, a big 43 percent jump over 1970. The Agriculture Department, in a nation with few farmers left, still had 128,052 employees, the Interior Department 81,844, and the Department of Justice nearly 54,000. HUD accounted for only 16,579.
A summation of the 1980s without fear, favor, or partisanship is also enlightening. At the end of the Reagan-Bush era—1992—there were 3.085 million federal toilers. More than 38,000 of them worked for Congress, and nearly 28,000 for the judiciary, nearly double as many as twelve years before. The Defense Department still led the cabinet with its 982,774 employees. Veterans Affairs (essentially the former VA) had 260,205 in its ranks, and the never resting Treasury Department now paid the salaries of almost 131,191. Health and Human Services stood at 155,662; Agriculture, still at a surprising 128,324. The Department of Justice had hugely expanded from 56,327 in 1980 to 96,927. Interior employed 85,260. The Department of Education, a favored target of conservatives, had only 5,113 workers. Of the independent agencies, the Environmental Protection Agency had 18,196 at work and was exceeded by NASA, with some 25,425, and by two bodies dating all the way back to New Deal days—the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, with 22,467, and the TVA, with 19,493, although the latter represented a major downsizing from the 1980 figure of 51,714. There were other shrinkages too, the General Services Administration having dropped since 1980 from about 37,654 to 20,770. Likewise, smaller agencies such as the U.S. International Development Cooperation Agency—that is, foreign aid—underwent reductions, but they had begun the decade of the eighties with fewer than 10,000, so their big layoffs represented small real numbers.
Such cuts aside, the fundamental fact was that in 1990 the national government was still huge and still growing, albeit at a slackened pace. The reason was that for all the growing dissatisfaction with expensive bureaucracies, people did not truly want government “off their backs.” They expected it to act in their behalf—though not necessarily that of others—in a variety of ways, and it did so in response to the same pressures that had led it in the 1800s to give away free homesteads, create land-grant colleges and agricultural experiment stations, erect naval observatories, and send consuls to foreign commercial centers.