Contractors’ War


George Bush signs the Federal Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006

From Harper’s:

Scott Horton: You track the growing dependence of the federal government on contractors–from a little more than $200 billion in 2000 to about $440 billion in 2007. What shifts in policy account for this explosive growth in the use of contractors

Allison Stanger: The main factor was the privatization of war. Iraq and Afghanistan are America’s first contractors’ wars, with contractors often outnumbering uniformed personnel on the ground in both conflicts. This development is new and unprecedented. At the height of the Vietnam War, contractors represented just 14 percent of the American presence on the ground. Without contractors, we would need a draft to wage these two wars, and with a draft, we would obviously have a very different political situation.

While wartime contracting and successive supplemental appropriations have fueled these dramatic trends, this is not a partisan issue. Democrats and Republicans alike embraced outsourcing the work of government to the private sector whenever possible, both as a perceived cost-savings measure and as a mechanism for getting things done more efficiently. But the unprecedented explosion of contracting—to use Defense Secretary Gates’s language, “willy-nilly” contracting—to wage war in Iraq and Afghanistan was a tale of unprecedented waste, fraud, and abuse. Taxpayer money obviously cannot be well spent when government is not following the money.

Your numbers end during the Bush years–can you carry them forward to the Obama Administration? What difference has Barack Obama made to this process?

The trends mapped in the book have continued unabated under the Obama Administration, and in many ways our dependence on contractors has grown. When the State Department replaces the U.S. military in Iraq, they will be wholly reliant on contractors to pursue the mission. To make matters worse, Congress is currently poised to slash funding for open government initiatives from $35 million to $8 million on President Obama’s watch. If the proposed cuts go through, it would likely close the web site, that made my book possible (I used it to follow the money). The huge irony here is that as a senator Obama championed the legislation (the 2006 Federal Funding Transparency and Accountability Act, or FFATA) that brought into being and as a candidate promised a new era of openness in government.

Has the growth in the number of contractors been associated with a growth in the number of people supervising and auditing contracts?

As outsourcing has exploded, the number of people supervising and auditing contracts has actually shrunk. This is because we are involved in a false debate about the size of government in this country today. Government today has never been bigger in terms of the amount of money it spends but it has never been smaller in terms of the number of government employees supervising that spending. For example, the size of the executive branch federal workforce in 2008 was the same as it was in 1963, yet the federal budget in that same time period, adjusted for inflation, more than tripled and the population has doubled. That enormous gap is, in part, filled by contractors.

“One Nation Under Contract–Six Questions for Allison Stanger”, Scott Horton, Harper’s