WASHINGTON ― America’s largest federal employee union is urging lawmakers to repeal limits on the number of civilian workers at the Pentagon, some which date back more than 30 years.

The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 300,000 Department of Defense employees, is arguing in a letter to lawmakers that DoD has long skirted the caps by enlarging its contractor workforce. It’s the latest in a years-long tug of war over the military’s so-called “fourth estate,” made up of agencies outside of the service branches.

“These personnel caps mask true overhead costs by creating incentives for shell games involving creating field operating agencies that are really part of the headquarters or shifting ‘closely associated with inherently governmental’ functions and ‘critical functions’ to contractors,” AFGE Legislative Director Julie Tippens said in a Feb. 8 letter to the leaders of the House and Senate armed services panels.

The letter outlines the union’s priorities for the fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act, which the panels aren’t expected to begin drafting until after President Joe Biden releases his FY23 defense budget request some weeks from now.

AFGE says it wants to repeal statutory caps of 4,300 personnel at the Office of the Secretary of Defense, as well as caps on headquarters personnel for the Army (1,350), the Navy and Marine Corps (1,350 total for both) and Air Force (1,100). Personnel for the Pentagon’s management headquarters activities and management headquarters support activities are frozen by law at 1989 levels, and AFGE wants that repealed too.

AFGE argues contractors cost more than government employees, which is in line with the findings of a Project On Government Oversight review of DoD budget and spending data. POGO in 2012 found that contractor employees cost nearly three times more than an average DoD civilian employee performing the same job.

AFGE’s proposal is already seeing some pushback on Capitol Hill, where there’s a long history of efforts to pare back the Pentagon’s civilian bureaucracy. The top Republican on the House defense appropriations subcommittee, Rep. Ken Calvert of California, last year proposed a 15% cut to DoD’s civilian workforce and decried AFGE’s proposal this month in a statement.

“Today, we have fewer troops, fewer Navy warships, and fewer combat aircraft than we did under President [Ronald] Reagan. We are also at a historical high when it comes to the number of civilian workers at the Defense Department,” Calvert said. “We should focus on performance and ensure that the Department is more efficient and effective through eliminating unnecessary middle management and modernizing business practices. Eliminating the caps on civilians does the exact opposite.”

Though Pentagon officials with the Obama and Trump administrations have sought savings through headquarters civilian reductions, it’s unclear how the Pentagon will respond to AFGE’s current push. A Pentagon spokesperson declined to comment on AFGE’s letter, but Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, before her current role as DoD’s top manager, expressed some skepticism over past efforts to control costs by cutting personnel.

“Predictably, for example, even though Congress directed the Defense Department to cut $10 billion through administrative efficiencies between 2015 and 2019, the Pentagon failed to substantiate that it had achieved those savings,” Hicks said in a 2020 essay for Foreign Affairs magazine. “The reason those efforts rarely succeed is that they merely shift the work being done by civilians to others, such as military personnel or defense contractors.”

Likewise, Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he’s wary of using workforce adjustments as a means to rein in spending. He said cost comparisons between contractors and civilians are tricky because long-term civilian pension costs are hard to predict and eliminating unnecessary tasks at DoD is a more effective way to find efficiencies.

“When you start cutting back on unnecessary or low-priority tasks and missions, then you can start reducing headcount,” Harrison said. “Whether it’s a civilian or a contractor, in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that you stop spending money paying people to do things that don’t need to be done.”

Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.

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