The Wall Street Journal reported this morning that ten Washington think tanks are preparing a joint letter calling on Congress and the President to cut DoD overhead spending so that training and readiness can be preserved along with the Department’s burgeoning cyber and special operations capabilities.
Military analysts at think tanks from the liberal Center for American Progress to the conservative American Enterprise Institute to the libertarian Cato Institute will sign the letter to be released Monday. (When analysts at these think tanks reach an accord, it might be time to start thinking about a zombie shelter because the.end.is.nigh.)
Specifically, the analysts will recommend another round of base closures, reforming the military health care system (Tricare), and cutting the Pentagon’s sizeable civilian workforce. Of the three, cutting the Department’s civilian workforce will be the easiest to achieve. Congress has rejected the administration’s proposals to increase some Tricare fees and is showing zero interest in another base closure round. Military compensation would seem to be another area ripe for reform, but the personnel subcommittee markup rejected DoD’s proposed cap for the 2014 military pay raise. For now, everyone seems content to let the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission put forward some proposals that have little hope of becoming law.
That leaves civilians and contractors holding the short straw.
Time magazine’s Mark Thompson linked to a new Government Accountability Office report showing that DoD’s civilian workforce (civilian employees plus contractors) outnumbers active duty military personnel. In FY11, DoD reported 807,000 civilian full-time equivalents (FTEs) and an estimated 710,000 contractor FTEs. At 1.5 million, civilians outnumber the 1.4 million active duty military personnel.
You know who else outnumbers active duty military on the U.S. Government payroll? Military retirees and their survivors / dependents. 2.4 million retirees and their survivors receive $100 billion a year and 5.5 million receive Tricare benefits compared to 3.3 million active duty personnel and dependents.
Putting aside for the moment whether or not the civilian workforce is too large, focusing strictly on the numbers of civilians, contractors, and uniformed personnel is misleading because it overlooks a key fact.
There’s a very good explanation for the current civilian to military workforce ratio: Civilians and contractors cost less. A lot less. (See above.) We’ve grown the size of our civilian and contractor workforce precisely because we can’t afford to grow our active duty military at the same rate. In the last ten years, our military personnel costs have almost doubled without a corresponding increase in size.
Cutting the civilian workforce will achieve less savings than cuts to uniformed personnel. In perhaps typical Washington fashion, we’ve decided to go for the easy fix that won’t actually fix much.
I don’t have the right answer for the appropriate mix of uniformed and civilian workforce so this isn’t an argument prioritizing one or the other. It’s simply about acknowledging the costs of each, so that we can build the force we need at a price that’s right. The problem is that the Pentagon doesn’t have an answer either. According to a recent Reserve Forces Policy Board report (full disclosure: I work for the chairman), “the Department does not know, use, or track the fully burdened and life cycle costs” for active duty service members,” and according to the aforementioned GAO report, “DoD has yet to assess the appropriate mix of its military, civilian, and contractor personnel capabilities in its strategic workforce plan as required by law.”
Based on anecdotal observations from my professional network, many DoD civilians and contractors are military retirees,* which means they’re drawing a pension, receiving subsidized health care, and shopping at DoD commissaries. So it’s ironic that that by cutting the civilian workforce, we’re inevitably harming some of the very retirees we’re trying to protect by avoiding the tough reforms to the military compensation and retirement system.
* I’ve searched far and wide for survey data that confirms or denies this anecdotal hypothesis but have yet to find it.