Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., suggests reducing the Pentagon workforce to save costs. Union reps say that won't have the effect he thinks it will.

Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., suggests reducing the Pentagon workforce to save costs. Union reps say that won't have the effect he thinks it will. Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Cutting Pentagon Jobs Won't Stop the Real Waste, Union Says

Lawmakers should reject pressure to fund underperforming weapons and service contracts, AFGE officials said.

Officials with the nation’s largest federal employee union are urging congressional appropriators to reject proposals that would reduce federal spending through cuts to the Defense Department’s civilian budget, warning such a decision would harm military readiness.

American Federation of Government Employees legislative director Julie Tippens, whose union represents a quarter million Pentagon employees, urged lawmakers to reject proposals to lean on the department’s civilian workforce to find budgetary savings in a letter Thursday to appropriators in both chambers of Congress.

Earlier this month, Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., who serves as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee’s defense subcommittee, suggested that the government could save $125 billion over the next five years by declining to replace civilian Defense Department workers who seek employment elsewhere.

“Like any large business, you’ve got a 5% turnover ratio per year,” Calvert told Defense News. “So if you hire 3% instead of 5%, you get a reduction over a period of time that will have a significant impact over the bottom line. Remember, our highest cost is personnel because we have a volunteer service.” 

Tippens described that tactic as wrongheaded, arguing that wasteful spending at the Defense Department is actually concentrated in investments in underperforming weapons systems and service contracts.

“The problem with this approach is that actual waste is not being cut while cutting the civilian workforce will hollow out the department’s capabilities, repeating mistakes from the past,” she wrote. “Current Deputy Secretary of Defense [Kathleen] Hicks accurately described the last time this approach to cutting the civilian force took place with the fiscal year 2013 Section 955 cuts: ‘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. 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.”

The problem with this approach is that actual waste is not being cut.
American Federation of Government Employees legislative director Julie Tippens

The union noted that recent reporting by The New York Times found that so-called “lemon” weapon systems like littoral combat ships cost the Pentagon around $4.3 billion over the next five years, but Congress forced the department to retain the program “in response to heavy industry lobbying.”

Tippens wrote that when the Pentagon’s civilian workforce is slashed, uniformed personnel are required to pick up the slack, a dynamic that can hinder readiness as the increased workload contributes to burnout and fatigue, and reduces the quality of administrative support for military functions. And turning to federal contractors ends up costing more money than simply retaining civilian employees.

“Rep. Calvert’s proposal runs counter to a [2017] Defense Business Board Study, ‘Fully Burdened and Life Cycle Costs of the Workforce’ . . . that recommended ending arbitrary full time equivalent constraints on the civilian workforce in order to reduce costs,” she wrote. “The board found that at that time the department spent about $141.7 billion in contracted services for about 777,000 contractor employees. This was more than it spent on military personnel ($136.7 billion). It was double what was spent on approximately the same number of civilian employees ($71.5 billion for 740,000 DoD civilian employees at that time).”

Instead of targeting the civilian workforce, AFGE urged lawmakers and the Biden administration to focus on improving auditing and oversight of federal defense contracts, both for military technology and back-end services.

“We ask that both Congress and the Department of Defense rethink the current practice, mistakenly considered as an ‘efficiency’ by Rep. Calvert and some outside analysts, of arbitrarily failing to backfill civilian positions based on attrition levels rather than instead advocating for full transparency over all requirements, including service contracts, unneeded weapon systems that the warfighters have rejected, and the inefficient use of military that will only lead to increased stress on the force, reduced readiness and lethality.”

[In 2020, Calvert attempted to overturn election results.]