Announcing a new policy, the White House flubs the key details

On his first full weekday as president, Donald Trump moved forward on a variety of executive orders and actions, including a freeze on federal hiring, which wasn’t exactly a surprise. The directive states that “no vacant positions existing at noon on January 22, 2017, may be filled and no new positions may be created, except in limited circumstances.”

Jobs related to national security are exempt from the policy.

This wouldn’t have been especially notable, except for White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s explanation for why Team Trump embraced this change: the move “counters the dramatic expansion of the federal workforce in recent years.”

As the Washington Post reported, that doesn’t make any sense.
In both raw-number and percentage terms, this is an inaccurate statement. According to numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 2.8 million employees on the federal payroll as of December. The number has risen slightly since May 2014, when there were roughly 2.7 million federal employees (part of the reason may be an accelerated pace of hiring in anticipation of a new presidential administration). That represents an increase of about 3 percent.

By contrast, the total civilian workforce, excluding federal employees, grew by about 4.9 percent over the same period.

In raw-number terms, the number of federal employees is nearly the same today (2.8 million) as it was when Barack Obama took office (2.79 million). It is also similar to the number of federal employees at the end of the Clinton administration (2.75 million) and lower than at any time during the Reagan administration (when it peaked at 3.15 million).
Using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, I put together the above chart, showing the trajectory of the federal workforce since 1939, when the government started keeping track. That spike on the left side of the image points to World War II, and those intermittent spikes appearing every 10 years reflect temporary federal hiring for the Census.

The image is pretty straightforward: there has been no “dramatic expansion of the federal workforce in recent years.”

I’ve seen some suggestion that Spicer lied about this to reporters yesterday, but let’s not jump to conclusions. It’s entirely possible the White House press secretary simply didn’t know what he was talking about when explaining his administration’s new federal policy.

But even if this more forgiving interpretation is correct, it raises a related question: if the Trump White House doesn’t know about the size and growth rates of the federal workforce, why is the Trump administration so eager to freeze it?

Or put another way, if yesterday’s directive is intended to “counter” a trend that doesn’t exist, maybe the White House’s new policy isn’t necessary?