How Do You Get to Work?

by Greg Walcher on September 29, 2017

Most Americans who commute to work every day drive their own cars, at their own expense. There are a few exceptions, companies that offer some employees the use of a company car as part of the benefit package, but those are usually the top managers. There is one other notable exception – the U.S. government.

The Department of Energy has as many cars as it has employees; the Interior Department can supply wheels to two-thirds of its entire workforce, and the Agriculture Department (including the U.S. Forest Service) to more than half.

Five years ago George Washington University analyzed the growing number and cost of federal vehicles, with results that shocked congressional leaders. The study found that the U.S. government owned or leased more than a quarter million vehicles, not counting the military or the Postal Service. That was a 20 percent increase in one decade – even though the number of employees had not changed significantly. There had been 200,922 civilian vehicles in 2001, but 254,059 by 2012. The annual cost of these vehicles had increased even more, from $852 million to over $1.8 billion. That didn’t even include the annual fuel bill, which went from $173 million to $566 million during that same period.

Reeling over such unexpected growth in the federal fleet, Congress asked the federal property management agency, the General Services Administration (GSA), to keep much closer tabs on those numbers, and report regularly. That may have satisfied a few, but the reports show nothing but continued dramatic growth ever since.

Last week I wrote about the government’s surprising ownership of property all over the country, including valuable real estate. It is a growing scandal how bad the record-keeping system is, so bad that the GSA quite literally cannot tell Congress how much property it owns, where it is all located, or what condition it is in. But there are three types of property embroiled in this same growing scandal: real property (land and buildings), intellectual property (patents and copyrights), and personal property (vehicles and equipment). The latter category has been the subject of several congressional hearings, but leaders are still a long way from anything close to an accountable system for managing the number, cost, and uses of government vehicles.

Just three years after that university study, GSA reported in 2015 that the total number of federal vehicles had increased 250 percent, to 640,304, and the total annual cost was up 239 percent, to $4.3 billion! Obviously, cars cost more today than in 2012, though inflation has never come close to 250 percent. But here is the real kicker – the number of federal employees actually declined throughout that entire period – there were 2.6 million federal employees in 2001, and only 2.1 million in 2016.

Keep in mind that none of these numbers include the Postal Service, which operates as a quasi-independent business, though it is an agency of the U.S. government. It is controlled by presidential appointees and its workers enjoy the protections and benefits of federal employment. Frequently, that includes use of vehicles, as the Postal Service owns the world’s largest fleet, more than 212,000 vehicles (and they’re not all mail trucks). That’s one vehicle for every three postal employees. The Defense Department is a close second, with 177,000, and that does not include military vehicles.

Some congressmen are also trying to get a handle on the number of vehicles purchased for contractors, and especially for state and local governments. Those are not included in the numbers, but they also cost billions. That is particularly noteworthy when you consider that the federal government, whose own workforce has remained about the same size for 75 years, has financed massive growth elsewhere.

Brookings Institution scholar John J. DiIulio Jr., writes that since 1960, the number of state and local government employees has tripled to over 18 million, a growth driven largely by federal funding. At least 3 million of those workers are directly funded by federal grants, a number larger than the federal workforce itself. Many of those grants also include funding for vehicles and equipment, but there is no database for that little detail. Thus, as in the case of real estate, the government does not know, and cannot accurately report, how many vehicles it actually buys, leases, sells, or maintains every year.

Lack of accountability invites abuse, in this and every other human endeavor. Perhaps even federal workers should have to get themselves to work, and budget for that expense, like all the rest of us.

A version of this column first appeared in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel September 22, 2017.

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