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$20 Billion Hidden in the Swamp: Feds Redact 255,000 Salaries

Published: February 11, 2018
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The only thing the bureaucratic resistance hates more than President Trump is the disclosure of their own salaries. It’s a classic case of the bureaucracy protecting the bureaucracy, underscoring the resistance faced by the new administration.

Recently, Open the Books filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (pictured) for all federal employee names, titles, agencies, salaries, and bonus information. We’ve captured and posted online this data for the past 11 years. For the first time, we found missing information throughout the federal payroll disclosures. Here’s a sample of what we discovered from the FY2017 records:

  • 254,839 federal salaries were redacted in the federal civil service payroll (just 3,416 salaries were redacted in FY2016).
  • 68 federal departments redacted salaries. Even small agencies like the National Transportation Services Board and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation redacted millions of dollars in salaries.
  • $20 billion in estimated payroll now lacks transparency.
  • A 7,360 percent increase in opacity hides one out of every five federal salaries.

Who’s the bureaucrat in charge? Not a Trump appointee – the president doesn’t even have a current nominee at OPM. So, the buck stops with new acting Director Kathleen McGettigan, a 25-year staffer who assumed the position because she was the next in line, not because the White House appointed her.

 

Trump has the power to replace her at any time. This lack of transparency is apparently a result of the president’s failure to appoint his people to executive positions. Trump knows controlling the human resource department is key to managing the federal bureaucracy. In fact, Trump forecast this type of institutional resistance in his inaugural address.

“The establishment protected itself but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories.… And while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land. That all changes starting right here and right now.”

 

The decision to redact 255,000 federal salaries for $20 billion in payroll harms oversight. The American people deserve to know who makes how much, in what position, employed by which agency.

For example, more than 6,600 salaries were redacted at the Department of Veterans Affairs. At an agency where hiring priorities have been repeatedly questioned, transparency is crucial. In recent years, just one in 10 new hires at the VA was a doctor. In FY2017, the VA hired 8,727 new employees and just 561, or 6 percent, were doctors.

 

In December 2017, our “OpenTheBooks Oversight Report – Mapping the Swamp, a Study of the Administrative State” found $114 billion in compensation paid to 1.35 million federal civil service employees (excluding the U.S. Post Office) in fiscal year 2016. We found 165 percent growth in bureaucrats making $200,000 or more; 30,000 bureaucrats out-earning all 50 governors at $190,000; and the average salary at 78 large federal agencies exceeding $100,000.

At OpenTheBooks.com, citizens have the tools to investigate their local piece of the federal bureaucracy. We have literally mapped the swamp, pinning all federal disclosed bureaucrats plus post office employees by employer location ZIP Code on our interactive map.

But not this year. Our organization can’t properly quantify the FY2017 payroll because of the massive salary redactions. After all, we can’t map what we can’t see.

Make no mistake – even under the Obama administration, too much information was redacted.

Last year, we complained about the 314,890 redacted employee names, including all 77,000 employees at the Internal Revenue Service and the $1.1 billion in “performance bonuses” shielded by federal union agreements (FY2016). We worked with Congressman Ron DeSantis on The Taxpayer-Funded Pension Disclosure Act, which would open the books on $125 billion in federal pension data.

This year’s massive increase in redactions wasn’t a result of new policy, but a reinterpretation of existing policy. The OPM didn’t even mention the change in its FOIA response letter, making no legal argument for the 255,000 new redactions. It wasn’t until we asked the agency about the missing information that a representative issued the following response:   

“On an ongoing basis, OPM reviews its methods for creating data files to ensure consistency with its Data Release Policy governing the release of records related to federal employees in positions or agencies that require location information to be redacted. Because the Adjusted Basic Salary field contains locality pay, OPM recently began redacting this information for certain classes of employees, hence the drop that your IT department noticed.

This didn’t make much sense, so we asked again. You can read the agency’s third attempt at a response via its spokesperson here.

Facing resistance like this, the president has to work hard to deliver on his promises. The administrative state was designed to resist reform. Without a constant effort, the bureaucracy always wins.

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