The era of big government has returned with a vengeance, in the form of the largest federal work force in modern history.
The Obama administration says the government will grow to 2.15 million employees this year, topping 2 million for the first time since President Clinton declared that “the era of big government is over” and joined forces with a Republican-led Congress in the 1990s to pare back the federal work force.
Most of the increases are on the civilian side, which will grow by 153,000 workers, to 1.43 million people, in fiscal 2010.
The expansion could provide more ammunition to those arguing that the government is trying to do too much under President Obama.
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“I’m shocked that the ‘tea party’ hasn’t focused on it yet, and the Obama administration only has a thin sliver of time to deal more directly with it, I believe,” said Paul C. Light, who studies the federal bureaucracy as a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor at New York University. “When you talk about big government, you’re talking about a big employer.”
The new figures are contained in the budget that Mr. Obama sent Monday to Congress.
Mr. Obama says the civilian work force will drop by 80,000 next year, mostly because of a reduction in U.S. census workers added in 2010 but then dropped in 2011 after the national population count is finished. That still leaves 1.35 million civilian federal employees on the payroll in 2011.
From 1981 through 2008, the civilian work force remained at about 1.1 million to 1.2 million, with a low of 1.07 million in 1986 and a high of more than 1.2 million in 1993 and in 2008. In 2009, the number jumped to 1.28 million.
Including both the civilian and defense sectors, the federal government will employ 2.15 million people in 2010 and 2.11 million in 2011, excluding Postal Service workers.
The administration says 79 percent of the increases in recent years are from departments related to the war on terrorism: Justice, Defense, Homeland Security, State and Veterans Affairs.
After years of decline at the end of the Cold War, the Defense Department is restaffing. Mr. Obama estimated that the Pentagon will have 720,000 employees this year and 757,000 employees next year - up from a low of 649,000 in 2003.
The data also show that the Department of Homeland Security will grow by 7,000 a year in 2010 and 2011, and the Veterans Affairs Department will grow by 12,000 in 2010 and an additional 4,000 in 2011.
Peter R. Orszag, Mr. Obama’s budget director, also said more people have been hired to oversee outside contracts.
“Over the past eight or nine years, those contracts have doubled in size. The acquisition work force has stayed constant. It’s not too hard to figure out that oversight of those contracts has not kept pace with what it should be,” Mr. Orszag said.
Even as the total number of federal employees rises, the ratio of employees to Americans has declined steadily, from one employee for every 78 residents in 1953 to one employee for every 110 residents in 1988 to one employee for every 155 residents in 2008.
The federal work force is older than the private-sector work force, which Mr. Light said raises the possibility of reducing the total number through retirements.
About 31 percent of the private work force is 50 or older, while 46 percent of the federal work force is 50 or older.
Mr. Obama is in a situation similar to that of Mr. Clinton, who took office when the budget deficit was at a record high and government bureaucracy was expanding, even though the Pentagon was shedding workers with the end of the Cold War.
Mr. Clinton in 1996 declared that “the era of big government is over” and took steps to work with Congress to control spending and cut the work force, which already had been trending lower.
As he left office in 2000, Mr. Clinton boasted that his administration had helped cut 377,000 government jobs, leaving the smallest civilian federal work force since 1960.
Mr. Obama, though, appears to be accepting a larger federal work force.
The administration has called for federal workers to get a 1.4 percent pay raise next year, which Mr. Orszag said, “frankly, I think to a lot of Americans, sounds pretty good.”
The American Federation of Government Employees, the union that represents many government workers, said it was combing through the budget and did not have a comment.