If the workforce shrinks, what happens to the D.C. area?
Decisions about the size of the federal government are not so easy in the D.C. region, which has a huge number of residents with ties to Uncle Sam.
The thing about living in the D.C. area is that pretty much everyone has some tie to the federal government. Business owners have customers who work for the federal government. Doctors have patients who do. WAMU, for instance, receives federal funding and support from federal contractors.
The U.S. is right in the throes of the debate on the appropriate size of the government right now: presidential campaigns are in full swing amidst concern about the growing federal deficit. But those conversations take on different meanings in the D.C. area. Perhaps because of that co-dependency between area residents and the fed, people who live in the D.C. region are asking some pointed questions about the size and role of the federal government.
“A lot of people agree that we want smaller government, but not everyone is going to agree on how we should make it smaller,” says Carey Ahr, a quality assurance analyst for Wells Fargo who lives in Frederick. “It’s like saying we want to have better schools for kids. Well, how do you want to do that? There has to be more substance to the discussion.”
Others see a debate about the role of government that isn’t focusing on the right issues.
“I think the discussion needs to be deeper about the level that things should be done in government,” says Alan Griffin, a nonprofit executive in Owings, Md.
Call for deeper discussion
Those are sentiments WAMU 88.5 heard over and over when asking D.C. area residents what these debates mean to them. People with a wide range of political perspectives submitted more than 100 responses through the station’s Public Insight Network. But there was one common refrain: we need to have a more detailed conversation.
Specifically, which programs should we eliminate? Who will be affected? And who – if anyone – will step up to provide those services?
Perhaps no one craves that specificity as much as the hundreds of thousands of people in our area on the federal payroll.
One federal employee, Sarah, is among them. (She asked that her last name not be used for fear that speaking about her employer could impede her career advancement.) Growing up in a rural area of the Pacific Northwest, Sarah has seen the impact federal programs can have in small communities. Her father worked for the U.S. Forest Service there and now, as a federal employee in D.C., she sees how federal money is spent on a larger scale.
“I just feel sometimes like it’s easy to say big abstractions, like ‘reduce the workforce,'” she says. “Well, do you mean food safety inspectors or national park rangers? You’ve got to decide.”
Question is where to cut, not whether
There is broad agreement across the country that federal spending needs to be reevaluated. When a Pew survey this spring asked people to rank the most important problems facing the country, only unemployment and the economy were cited more often than the federal deficit. But there was very little agreement about how to reduce the deficit.
That discord discourages politicians from having more detailed conversations, says Steven Farnsworth, a professor and director of the University of Mary Washington‘s Center for Leadership and Media Studies.
“It’s not in the interest of the politicians to really lay out the pluses and minuses of things,” Farnsworth says. “People get elected on the pluses not the minuses.”
But this difficulty dates back to the founding of our country, he adds.
“We are people who believe the Hamiltonian vision of strong national power, but we’re also people who believe the Jeffersonian vision of the yeoman farmer and self-reliance,” he says. “And because we have these two very conflicting strains that have been there since the very start of who we were as Americans, we’re struggling with this even now.”
The dynamic plays out very clearly in our area in Virginia, he says.
“Virginia, as much as it may genuflect in the direction of small government philosophy, has been spared the worst of the economic crisis because of all the federal money that makes its way into Virginia,” says Farnsworth.
No simple answers to complex questions
Put another way, the fundamental questions about the purpose of our government are just really complicated, says Don Kettl, dean of the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy.
“It touches all of us so deeply and all of us so differently in so many ways that it’s not surprising that we have a hard time dealing with it,” says Kettl.
Which is why, in the D.C. metro area, the solution isn’t cut-and-dry (or red or blue.) People with deep ties to the federal government say they’re willing to make sacrifices to reduce the federal deficit and make the government more efficient. Ahr lives less than a mile from Ft. Detrick, and he says he’d like to see a reduction in military spending even though employment on the base contributes to the value of his home.
Griffin has worked for organizations that relied on federal funding, but he says he’d like to see most services left to local governments and private businesses. And Sarah acknowledges that there may be ways to trim in her own department.
“I think it’s good and probably responsible sometimes to say, ‘this service isn’t needed’ or, ‘the resources going here should go somewhere else,'” she says.
She’d just like to have an open and honest debate about those choices.