My Big Fat Private Government

One day after sharing Dan Schulman’s “Embassy Guards Gone Wild” blog item with my Facebook friends, I ran into one of them at our kids’ grade-school playground. He was still tripping over the graphic photos, and said something along the lines of, “Aren’t we supposed to have Marines to guard the embassies, who are well-trained and paid less and …

“… don’t eat potato chips out of each other’s asses?” I finished.

One would hope. But as Tim Shorrock explains in our current issue, the federal government has outsourced itself into a state of ineptitude. At last count, there were more federal contract workers than civil service employees, and contractors conduct some of the most sensitive (even illegal) tasks the US government performs—and do so at a higher cost to you and me. Operating spy satellites? Check. Flying predator drones over Pakistan? Check. Running covert assassination programs? Check. Shorrock reports:

More than 70 percent of the US intelligence budget—estimated this year at more than $60 billion—is now spent on contractors. Nearly 40,000 private contractors work for intelligence agencies including the CIA and the NSA, according to Ronald Sanders, a human resources official in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence; these contractors pull in salaries that average about $207,000 a year—almost double the pay of their cubicle mates employed by the government.

So why not just throw the bums out? Uh, not so fast. Overdependence on outsourcing has left America’s civil service incapable of performing all sorts of functions, including contractor oversight—yes, we farm that out, too. Decades of treating privatization as religion—and in conservative circles, it is one—have cost Washington its institutional knowledge and led to a revolving door through which skilled government employees depart and show up later as private contracters with far higher salaries.

Hoping to start reversing this trend, the Obama administration has put out a massive call for resumes to replace retiring boomers, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates wants to replace tens of thousands of contract workers over five years, which could at least begin to help curb endless, massive DOD cost overruns.

Can we ever wrest government back from the private sector? Well, it’ll be tough no matter what, but if the Supreme Court rules for corporate America in this case, it could spell game over for outsourcing reform.

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