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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
It is not my purpose to pick on the GAO, which I choose largely because it was established in 1921, years before the contemporary welfare state. It should not be confused with the Congressional Budget Office, a relative newcomer, created in 1974. But it is a good example of how the system proliferates titles and appointments in its steady process of multiplying and rearranging tasks.
I needn’t furnish many further excerpts from the Manual to make the point of bigness. The lightest skimming of its thousands of entries tells almost all. Under listings for the judicial branch, for instance, there is an Administrative Office of the United States Courts that has thirty-six directors, deputies, and chiefs of such divisions as “Accounting and Financial Systems” and “Relocation and Travel Management.” The Executive branch has a “White House Office” that includes the President’s Assistants, Deputy Assistants, and Special Assistants in areas that range from “Science and Technology” and “Environmental Affairs” to “News Analysis” and “Public Liaison.” There are also, for the First Lady separately, a Chief of Staff, Press Secretary, and Director of Scheduling. In all, 126 such Executive-branch executives are listed, each naturally with support personnel of his or her own.
The fourteen Departments of the Cabinet account for about 425 pages of the Manual , and another 225 pages cover Independent Establishments and Government Corporations, sixty strong. Some of these are frequent headliners—for example, the United States Postal Service, the Federal Communications Commission, NASA, and the CIA—while others are so specialized as to be almost unknown, such as the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board and the African Development Foundation.
To go inside some of these departments and agencies, old and new, is to swim in the multitudinous sea of responsibilities that the national government has assumed in the course of our history. Look at a single domain in the Department of Agriculture (USDA), which achieved cabinet status in 1889—say, that of the Under Secretary, Small Community and Rural Development. This functionary is the overlord of the Rural Electrification Administration, the Farmers Home Administration, and the Rural Development Administration, meaning that he or she is, among other things, in the electric-power, real estate, and banking businesses, since the Farmers Home Administration turns out to be an agency for guaranteeing loans to young and beginning farmers and to “limited-resource farmers” or those facing emergencies. Other Assistant Secretaries within the USDA (it’s hard to resist the acronymic tug) supervise the regulation of packers and stockyards, the rendering of advice to consumers, the compilation of agricultural statistics and forecasts, the health inspection of plants and animals, the management of forests, and the conservation of soil. All these responsibilities have been gradually shoveled into the USDA hopper by congressional enactments over 135 years, so it is no wonder that there are so many.
But youthfulness as an agency is no barrier to growth either. Look at one single, randomly chosen page of subordinate agencies of the Department of the Air Force, which came into being only in the late 1940s: Frequency (i.e., radio frequency) Management; Historical Research; Inspection; Legal Services; Logistics Management; Management Engineering; Medical Operations; Medical Support; Military Personnel Center and Morale; Welfare; and Recreation and Services. Here, then, is the explanation for the inclusion on the federal payroll of hundreds and possibly thousands of historians, engineers, management specialists, doctors, lawyers, and entertainers serving only one branch of one subdepartment of the cabinet.
Enough. The point is surely made, and when one is confronted with these facts, it is easy to understand the urge to “re-invent” or even dismantle a governing apparatus so massive. But to do so with an instrument better than the indiscriminate hatchet, we must first understand how the creature grew to its present size from most modest beginnings.
To illustrate just how modest, step back in time to President Washington’s first administration. He had only four principal advisers, the Secretaries of State, War, and the Treasury, and the Attorney General. They managed their affairs with a bare minimum of support. A visiting French officer called on the Secretary of War in 1796 and found no sentinel at the door and only two clerks scribbling away while the Secretary himself was next door getting a shave. The State Department cannot have been much bigger; even four years later its Washington headquarters had only eight clerks and a messenger. Treasury was the swollen bureaucracy. It had 39 employees on the payroll at the end of 1789, but only twelve years later it had 78 officials and employees in Washington alone and 1,615 in the “field service,” collecting duties and taxes and paying the government’s bills.