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By Dave Umhoefer December 15, 2011

Sen. Ron Johnson says Obama has increased federal workforce by 10 percent amid national job losses

Continuing a trend that began under President George W. Bush after 9/11, the federal government workforce has grown under President Barack Obama, mostly in defense, homeland security and related agencies.

Wisconsin’s junior senator, Republican Ron Johnson, wants to roll back the Obama-era growth by 2015 by not filling positions as people leave or retire. He says it could save $248 billion over a decade.

That proposal is part of a $1.4 trillion deficit-cutting plan Johnson presented to the congressional "supercommittee" that haggled over a budget-balancing plan before it reached a stalemate.

In the wake of the failure, Johnson argued it shouldn’t be that hard to find savings, especially in the federal worker ranks.

"I’m not talking about firing or terminating anybody, but we’ve got about 400,000 workers ready to retire," Johnson said in a Nov. 17, 2011 appearance on Bloomberg television.

He added: "President Obama has increased the federal workforce 192,000 individuals, about 10 percent since he’s taken office, while we’ve lost 2 million jobs."

Were Johnson’s numbers on target?  

PolitiFact National has tested many jobs claims. Its gold standard for official jobs figures is the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, considered the official arbiter of U.S. employment numbers.

Checking those numbers, we found that it’s accurate that 2 million jobs were lost in the overall private and public sectors (local and state governments dropped considerably). We used a baseline of January 2009, the last partial month of President George W. Bush.

What about the federal workforce?

Using the same Bureau of Labor Statistics figures, we found a smaller jump in the federal workforce than Johnson claimed -- a 129,900 gain, or  6 percent -- from January 2009 to October 2011. That’s based on preliminary numbers posted as of late November.

Where did Johnson get his 192,000 jobs and 10 percent increase?

He pointed us to the official executive-branch jobs data kept on the FedScope website by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.

The June 2011 FedScope data on civilian jobs -- the latest available when Johnson spoke -- showed 2.137 million federal employees, excluding most of the judicial, legislative and postal jobs.

Johnson provided us data for December 2008 -- just before Obama took office -- that he said he obtained privately from the agency. It showed 1.945 million federal jobs. The agency declined to comment on Johnson’s data. An OPM official said the agency did not publicly put out FedScope data for that month.

The agency referred us to publicly available September 2008 data, a few months prior, which showed 1.938 million federal jobs.

Either starting point gets you to Johnson’s 10 percent increase, about 190,000 jobs added.

Another important note: On the federal government growth, most of the increase goes away if you include the U.S. Postal Service, which has shrunk significantly. When you do, the increase is 29,000.

PolitiFact has found that both presentations -- postal workers in, postal workers out -- are used and credible. But they measure different things.

Some researchers see the quasi-governmental Postal Service as separate; others say it’s still part of the federal government.

"If you ignore that fact and say ‘The federal government is growing strongly’ and leave unsaid ‘except the parts that are shrinking fast,’ aren’t you just misleading readers?" asked Gary Burtless, senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution.

What about Johnson’s data source, FedScope?

FedScope is considered reliable and is used by researchers who prefer an actual headcount to the sample-based approach used by BLS. So Johnson is in good company when citing FedScope, which his office views as more precise than the BLS for the federal workforce.

Johnson, though, mixes his data sources, and there are other problems with his numbers.

If he had stuck with BLS for both numbers, he would gotten a significantly smaller increase in federal jobs -- 6 percent instead of the 10 percent he cited.

Plus, the FedScope numbers are not adjusted for seasonal swings, while the BLS data is tweaked for that. It’s impossible to judge the impact of that, but the difference might be notable, based on our review of BLS seasonal and non-seasonal data.

In addition, Johnson’s time frame is off in a couple ways.

His start date of December 2008 is about a month shy of Bush’s final month. So his figures wrongly attribute a small chunk of federal government growth to Obama.

And while his data was the latest available on FedScope, it was not as current as BLS.

Our conclusion

Despite all that, we found, it’s clear Johnson is on target on the 2 million jobs lost overall, and accurate or very close on the federal workforce trend -- at least using FedScope.

But juxtaposing the two numbers invites an apples to oranges comparison because they are from two different data sources. FedScope is credible, but a different animal than the BLS figures, so a lot of clarification of differences is needed to explain the relationship between the two measurements.

If Johnson had used the more up-to-date and widely quoted Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers for both calculations, the federal growth trend would have been less dramatic, though still significant.

Finally, we’ll note that PolitiFact routinely checks not only the accuracy of jobs numbers, but whether blame or credit is justifiably fixed on the subject of the political claim. For job-creation and job-loss claims, we have noted in the past that politicians’ policies are just one factor in employment levels. That’s true in this case, though the first part of Johnson’s claim --  on federal government growth -- arguably relates in large part to policy decisions by Obama.

Bottom line: A generally accurate statement that leaves out some key details.

That fits our definition of Half True.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

Bloomberg television interview, Senator Ron Johnson, Nov. 17, 2011

U.S. Office of Personnel Management, historical federal workforce tables, 1940-2010

U.S. Office of Personnel Management, federal human resources data, quarterly data through September 2011

Email exchange with John Palguta, vice president for Policy, Partnership for Public Service, Nov. 29-30, 2011

Email exchange with Brian Faughnan, press secretary, Sen. Ron Johnson, Nov. 29, 2011

Email exchange with Alex Siciliano, deputy press secretary, Sen. Ron Johnson, Nov. 30, 2011

Email exchange with Jennifer Harris, economist, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Nov. 30-Dec. 1, 2011

Email exchange, Brittney Manchester, spokeswoman, U.S. Office of Personnel Management, Nov. 22-30, 2011

US Senate Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce, and the District of Columbia, Recommendations for the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, September 2011

Los Angeles Times, "Supercommittee fails to agree on deficit-reduction plan," Nov. 21, 2011

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More by Dave Umhoefer

Sen. Ron Johnson says Obama has increased federal workforce by 10 percent amid national job losses

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