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More things you’d prefer not to know

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By Jim Flynn

Ten years ago President Bill Clinton told the nation “the era of big government is over.” We don’t know whether he was wrong or telling another big one while wagging his finger at us. In any case, both sides of Congress applauded, which was awkward because they had their fingers crossed.

However, despite differences, the Clinton White House and Speaker Newt Gingrich’s Republican Congress actually shrank the size of government, produced balanced budgets, and encouraged better than usual economic growth. Gridlock can be good. It encourages compromise.

Except for the Clinton years (1992-2001), every Congress and White House from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush has been enthusiastic for new programs and more government. The only distinctions have been whose pals get the goodies.

Hiring at all levels of government has skyrocketed over the past eight years. The federal government has grown 40 percent during the purportedly conservative Bush presidency.

As fast as the private sector downsizes, government agencies grow. Government is the employment agency of first and last resort for Congressional cronies and political pals.

The Food and Drug Administration announced recently it is adding 1,300 high-paying biologists, chemists, and medical officers in order to fulfill its mission. Federal agencies don’t perform work; they have missions.

The IRS says it had to ignore 500,000 suspect returns over the past two years, worth $1.6 billion paid out in questionable refunds, because it didn’t have sufficient resources. The IRS is another agency that never seems to have enough employees or a reliable computer system, no matter how many millions it spends.

Another government growth industry is bureaucrats watching bureaucrats. Of 64 federal Inspectors General, six have resigned or retired under fire over the past year.

Congress called immediately for stronger safeguards. Translated, that means an additional level of federal employees to watch the watchdogs who are supposed to be keeping an eye on other federal employees. It’s like buying a new dog to watch the cat that is supposed to be looking for mice.

Political philosopher John Locke said: “The size of government is dictated by the virtue of the nation.” The appetite of politicians and bureaucrats for more programs and more money leads inevitably to government out of control and corruption.

Getting accurate statistics on numbers of federal employees is a merry-go-round. If asked, we’re sure they’d complain they need more counters and more computers. Best guesstimate is the federal government employs around 17 million public servants, give or take a million.

On a recent walk around Washington we were taken with how many buildings housed the Department of Agriculture. Agriculture has 12 major locations, 17 satellite agencies, 7 missions, and thousands of employees.

The idiocy and irony of the Department of Agriculture is that it began as a depression era welfare program to help small farmers by stabilizing food prices. Now any proposal to cut back or eliminate farm subsidies, or any other mission of the department, ignites howls of protest from every member of Congress who has a cow grazing in his district.

A new barrier to determining the real size of government and how many people are performing federal work is privatization. The Bush White House has administered many war functions in Iraq and Afghanistan with private contractors. It has also waged a continuing campaign to privatize other government services.

The net effect of privatization has not been to reduce the size of government or save money, but to increase the number of people doing government work without being called employees. It’s the latest Washington hocus-pocus.

Our increasingly secretive government has a new mantra about openness: Why upset a lot of citizens who don’t have any real need to know? Maybe we should just change our national motto to “In Washington we trust,” even though we don’t.

Jim Flynn was formerly a corporate counsel, served in military intelligence during the Korean War, and once aspired to be a newspaper columnist.