- 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
By 1891 it is ten years since federal civilian employment hit 100,000; another 57,000 such workers have been added, and the Official Register is now an encyclopedialike 990 pages long. The breakdown suggests the growing range and complexity of functions. It requires 18 pages to describe the various functionaries who assist the Fifty-second Congress, hungry for administrative help as congressional membership grows and the legislative agenda becomes more crowded. The Treasury Department needs 239 pages to list not only its collectors but the employees of the Mint, the Coast and Geodetic Survey (which it seems to have taken from the Navy), the Light-House Board, and the very busy Bureau of Immigration. The War Department takes up the same number of pages—239—a good number of them listing employees of the Engineering Department, then actively engaged in flood control and internal-waterways improvement. The Post Office now requires a separate volume to list all its postmasters. The Department of the Interior takes up 147 pages of this 1891 Register . About a fifth of them list employees of the Commissioner of Pensions; another fifth are needed to cover the Census Office. Slightly over a quarter—40 pages—particularize the personnel of the Office of Indian Affairs.
THERE WERE fewer than 5,000 employees in 1816 and more than 155,000 seventy-five years later—multiplication with a vengeance in the nineteenth century.
There are some new arrivals in 1891. The Department of Justice, established in 1870 to give the Attorney General an organizational base, uses up only 7 pages, but Agriculture, finally made a cabinet department in 1889, already has more than 20 pages listing specialists scattered among divisions including Chemistry, Forestry, Vegetable Pathology, Economic Ornithology and Mammology, and Statistics. As a big-time employer the Department of Agriculture lags behind the Government Printing Office (a post-Civil War creation), which gets 34 pages, and the government of the District of Columbia, occupying 25, but is well ahead of two agencies less than ten years old: the Civil Service Commission (1 page) and the Interstate Commerce Commission (2 pages).
So there were fewer than 5,000 federal employees in 1816 and more than 155,000 seventy-five years later. Multiplication with a vengeance: Such was the nineteenth century. What would the twentieth bring?
We all know the answer very well: more of the same. The federal civilian payroll reached 400,150 in 1912. Six years later, in 1918, it had more than doubled—to 854,500 —a predictable result of our entry into World War I. Yet when the fighting ended and the Republicans restored the Republic to “normalcy,” the number did not contract to pre-war levels, and in fact it never fell below half a million during the 1920s. In 1929 it was 579,559. To some extent this illustrates a truism that government agencies have a tendency to linger on well beyond their initial usefulness, thanks to political protectors and civil service tenure. But it is also evidence of the lasting effects of war itself.
Handling the legal and financial minutiae and aftereffects of demobilization, as well as taking care of veterans, provided more than adequate rationale for additions to the Treasury, Commerce, Interior, Justice, War, and Navy Departments. Similarly, during the post-Civil War decades, the volume of claims by the boys in blue made the Pension Office, according to its commissioner in 1891, “the largest executive bureau in the world,” with a staff of 6,241. The much larger scale of the 1917–18 war’s cleanup strained the Washington of the twenties at the seams. It was during that time that preparations went forward for realizing an earlier expansion plan, the construction of the massive Federal Triangle, the great complex of government office buildings that still stands between the White House and the Capitol.
But it was not merely the residue of wartime responsibilities that accounted for the enlarged national establishment under Harding and Coolidge. The same forces that had impelled the government to facilitate railroad and steamboat development in the previous century were still at work as the transportation and communications revolutions rolled on. Extra workers were needed to implement the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916, which allotted some $75 million to help states build highways (and was followed by another Federal Highway Act in 1921); likewise there had to be people to carry out the missions of the Federal Radio Commission, created in 1927 to allocate broadcast frequencies, and the Bureau of Commercial Aviation, set up in 1926 to systematize the licensing of planes and pilots on the fast-growing commercial air routes. The end purpose of several Congresses in assigning these responsibilities to Washington was to help business grow, and between 1921 and 1928 no one pushed harder for such benign intervention than the Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover. The Department of Commerce itself, created in 1903, was the twentieth century’s first addition to the cabinet.