When I was just a boy, people said of federal employment that federal workers traded the higher salaries of the private sector for job security. If that was true then, it’s certainly not true now. Although estimates vary, federal workers probably enjoy at least a 20 percent advantage in pay over their private sector counterparts, in addition to job security, and the most generous benefits of any industry.
According to the Cato Institute, the federal government has the fourth highest-paid workers after only utilities, mining, and management of companies. Nationwide the average salary of a federal worker is $86,365, compared to $58,726 for a worker in the private sector, but in Washington, D.C., the average salary of a federal worker is significantly higher, at $112,601.
And it is not only federal workers in D.C. that are well paid, as these high federal salaries set the bar for salaries in all the ancillary industries in the area; the consultants, contractors, institutes and think tanks that subsist directly on government largesse. In fact, these “private sector” service providers might better be included in the class of federal workers, as their employment is wholly dependent on federal funding.
In addition to the federal workers and service providers who are direct recipients of federal monies, many more subsist indirectly on the government concentration in Washington; and this class consists of everyone from the food truck drivers that feed federal workers, to the lawyers and journalists who are there solely because of the concentration of wealth and power in the area.
About one-fifth (21.5 percent) of all federal workers are in Maryland, D.C., or Virginia. The stability of employment and real wealth of these workers is seen in the incredibly high cost of real estate in the region, where a 1950s-era 880 square-foot starter home in the suburbs can easily set you back half a million dollars. The enormous wealth is also reflected by the fact that the four richest counties in the US surround Washington, D.C., while five others in the region make it into the top 20.
These direct and indirect dependents of the federal government live in an unnatural bubble, protected from the economic and political concerns of ordinary Americans by lifetime employment and high salaries. Concentrated in the D.C. area, they are largely ignorant of conditions in other parts of the country. Increasingly, they think of themselves as a separate ruling class, a self-perpetuating and permanent aristocracy, naturally superior to ordinary people living in “fly-over” country that they govern.
Because they live together, work together, and share dependence on the government, they have similar concerns and a common outlook, and over time this has resulted in an increasingly homogenous political perspective. Although we do not know exactly how federal employees voted, we do know that overall 95 percent of their presidential campaign contributions went to Hillary Clinton, with some departments (like State, Agriculture, and Education) giving her more than 99 percent of their contributions. This is clearly unrepresentative of the country at large, in which 29 percent identify as Democrats, 25 percent as Republicans, and 42 percent as independents, and about half voted for Donald Trump.
Although out of touch, unelected, and largely unaccountable, the federal bureaucracy in Washington (the “deep state”) remains immensely powerful, and as its power grows, democracy and self-government are proportionally weakened. Past efforts to reform the bureaucracy have proved ineffectual, as the deep state has worked to protect its privilege and job security, enacting laws and regulations and forming public sector unions that make significant pay reductions or lay-offs extremely difficult.
President Trump came into office on a promise to “drain the swamp,” to reduce the power and influence of the federal bureaucracy, and one of his first acts was the implementation of a federal hiring freeze. While this will reduce the overall federal workforce over time, it leaves the core of the entrenched Washington bureaucracy intact. It also leaves the senior leadership in place, many of whom are former political appointees that have “burrowed in” to the permanent civil service, and it is these officials that are the most unaccountable, and most engaged in undermining the president’s agenda.
To further dismantle the deep state, and make the government more accountable, and more representative of the average American, there are several additional reforms the administration might consider. The first is decentralization. With modern advances in communications technology, and the ease with which people and goods can move around, there is no real rationale for the concentration of government agencies around Washington, D.C. The administration, whenever practical, should consider moving agencies out of the D.C. area, and distributing them across the country.
Wherever possible, the agencies could be located in areas of the country most relevant to their mission. For example, the Agency for International Development and the Department of Health could be moved to Mississippi, one of the least developed and least healthy states. Housing and Urban Development could be moved to Detroit, and the Department of Agriculture to Kansas or Nebraska. In addition to bringing federal workers closer to the issues they are meant to be working on, decentralization would have several other positive benefits.
First, many government workers, unwilling to live in “fly-over” country, would voluntarily leave government service, facilitating rapid reduction in personnel. Second, the cost of government would decrease substantially due to fewer personnel and lower rents. Third, the taxes that fund government salaries and operations would be spread more equitably across the country, rather than being concentrated in one area, fueling broader economic prosperity. Fourth, government workers would be more exposed to the concerns and aspirations of ordinary Americans, and over time would become less politically homogenous and more reflective of the country as a whole.
In addition to decentralization, the administration might consider restoring the old bargain for government workers—low pay but job security—by indexing government pay to some private sector median. Alternatively, it could be higher pay (i.e. at current levels), but with the end of lifetime employment. Term limits on employment would bring government closer to the people, and facilitate the adoption of the latest management and technology advancements by the public sector, as people from the business sector took a few years off to do a tour in government service.
Reforms like these may seem radical to some, but actually they are quite reasonable measures to reduce the cost and size of government, and reinvigorate democracy. They may be difficult to implement in full immediately, but if the principle is established that federal workers and agencies should not be concentrated in one area, but should be distributed across the country, then change will come. Over time, federal workers would cease to be a ruling class, and return to their proper role as public servants, working for and accountable to their fellow citizens.