Chatterjee & Dechter: GOP’s Hiring Freeze Would Chill Growth

Posted October 8, 2010 at 5:29pm

The GOP’s “Pledge to America” has some traditional conservative allies wishing Congressional Republicans would pledge themselves to more careful policymaking.

[IMGCAP(1)]One part of the party’s agenda proposes a blanket nonsecurity hiring freeze — in the name of ensuring “that the public sector no longer grows at the expense of the private sector.” They might have first consulted the private sector, which for years has been clamoring for more federal workers to staff the Washington, D.C., agencies that issue patents, approve drugs, inspect food and generally reassure investors and entrepreneurs that America is a good place to do business.

“A hiring freeze would mean that the Food and Drug Administration could not fill senior management positions, wouldn’t be able to add food inspectors and wouldn’t be able to beef up the office of generic drugs, which has a backlog of about 2,000 applications,” said Steven Grossman, deputy executive director of the Alliance for a Stronger FDA, a Silver Spring, Md.-based lobby group that represents pharmaceutical conglomerates and biotech startups alike.

The Washington-based Intellectual Property Owners Association — a trade group that represents more than 200 corporate patent holders, including ExxonMobil Corp., Johnson & Johnson and IBM Corp. — is likewise urging Congress to let the patent office beef up its staff in order to reduce a near-record backlog of applications, one of which might just launch the next job-creating Google Inc. or Apple Computer Inc.

“We strongly support the patent and trademark office’s program for hiring 1,000 patent examiners,” said Herbert Wamsley, IPO executive director. “We are convinced that it’s necessary. It’s a potential investment and jobs issue.”

This is probably not the reaction that Congressional Republicans envisioned when they crafted their pithy, 47-word hiring policy. Their rationale for an across-the-board hiring ban for nonsecurity workers: “Small businesses and entrepreneurs are the engine of our economy and should not be crowded out by unchecked government growth.”

The problem is, by proposing a blunt budget-cutting weapon that sounds good (more small-business men, fewer bureaucrats), Republicans are neglecting the unpleasant task of separating essential government services from those we can live without. That may be good politics, but it’s bad policy, and it’s bad for business.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has a backlog of more than 700,000 applications waiting to be reviewed by their 6,000 patent examiners who are struggling to keep up with the demand. The patents range from new computer devices from software companies to new drugs and pharmaceutical compounds, medical devices, surgical techniques, and medical treatments. If the patent office can’t reduce its 35-month backlog of pending applications, “that will deter investment and affect job creation,” Wamsley said.

Likewise, a hiring freeze at the FDA would deter investors in new drugs, medical devices and biological breakthroughs, “especially those funding small businesses,” Grossman said. “A lot of the cutting-edge science in devices, drugs and biologics are driven by smaller companies that are dependent on the flow of investment capital.”

Republicans say they would not freeze security hires at the Pentagon, and with good reason. Under the direction of Robert Gates, the Defense Department hopes to expand from 127,000 people to 147,000 by 2015, which would return the workforce to roughly 1998 levels. That’s not an unreasonable number given that the volume of military contracting has more than doubled in the past dozen years. Some of these new hires will be federal auditors tasked to tackle the fraud, waste and abuse in military contracting.

Do we really want to deny the patent office and the FDA the similar resources that they need to do the very things American businesses say are vital to economic recovery?

In their next-generation “Contract with America,” Republicans have pledged themselves to a government more “careful in its stewardship” of the public interest. They should first pledge themselves to be more careful in their pledges.

Pratap Chatterjee is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. He is the author of the books “Halliburton’s Army” and “Iraq, Inc.” Gadi Dechter is associate director of government reform at the Center for American Progress.