Not a Detail Man

Good catch by Josh Marshall on Newt Gingrich’s breezy statement during last night’s presidential candidate debate that civil service reform could save the federal government “a minimum of $500 billion a year.”

That sounded pretty crazy to me since that’s like 15% of the entire federal government. And the vast majority of federal spending goes to the military and transfer payments like Social Security and Medicare.

Well, we looked into it and it turns out that the federal government’s entire payroll, even including the military, came to just $432.6 billion in fiscal 2011. In other words, if you fired everyone who works for the federal government you couldn’t save $500 billion.

Our requests for comment from the Newt campaign have yet to be returned.

But then we know Newt Gingrich is a big-picture kinda guy who can’t much be troubled with getting the facts straight. He might have been within a few hundred billion of the right figure.

It reminds me of the story about Will Rogers’ suggestion, at the height of the German U-Boat campaign on Atlantic shipping during World War I, that the problem could be solved simply by draining the ocean. Asked how that feat could be accomplished, Rogers replied: “That is a detail, and I am not a detail man.”

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.