I want to break out this point. I’m sitting here in my office–I just got off the phone with a federal official in Washington. Just about everyone in his office is working. My practice deals with the federal government a lot–a lot of law does intersect by definition, and I have yet to encounter an unmanned phone in DC. When I worked at the SEC, what stunned me was how many people did useless and pointless jobs. I conduct depositions of the federal government frequently, and its not unusual for the fed to have to produce ten witnesses to answer questions where one would suffice in private industry.
A number of years ago, our venture capital company took over a business in Indiana which had close to 1200 employees, had tons of international business and was losing money hand over fist. We were baffled. We finally asked every employee to send us a description not only of their job, but also a daily journal for a week describing exactly what they did. What we discovered was that at least 500 employees were doing nothing but supporting each other. We cut 500 employees and that’s all it took to make the company profitable.
There is no mechanism in the federal government to weed out dead wood. A year ago, I deposed a federal employee whose job it is to print out emails and hand deliver them. There were six people in her agency who did that, even though the recipients of those emails all saved them electronically and who could, i guess, have printed out their own emails, except that they were denied access to the printers, which was in the excessive jurisdiction of the those six folk who printed out emails.
It has occurred to me over the past three days that maybe there is a mechanism. Since 1997, most agencies have worked to make themselves immune to shut downs, creating firewalls around the essential folk, and leaving everyone else to twist in the wind. The process had a two pronged effect. First, it defined who we need and who we don’t. Second, it defined “how” work is done in the federal government. The Interior Department has plenty of people who are still working, but the Interior Department under a Democratic president has decided that rangers at national parks are non essential. Leaving aside the question of whether the federal government should own and run national parks (I think not), this administration has been playing political football by leaving intact the email printers while putting up signs visible to the public that the park is closed. The real problem with government size is not what you see, but that which is invisible.
Truth is, as long as the federal government holds the federal lands, it has to maintain them. By next week, middle managers from Washington are simply going to have to be patrolling the national parks, which are already are being overrun by the free the park movement. So what is that middle manager doing while so many rangers were sent home? Nothing, same as always.
What we need from the government is not anecdotes and platitudes about who is suffering, but a real analysis of who the government employs, why, and how the jobs were created. Because this shut down is more about politics than anything else, we should take this opportunity to really ponder whether we need 800,000 federal employees that both the Republicans and Democrats deemed non-essential.