5 Largest United States Government Agencies

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If you’re tired of hearing about the federal budget deficit, it might be time to buy some earplugs. The deficit will be one of the hot topics in not only this year’s presidential race, but in Congress as well, as lawmakers again debate the extension of the federal debt-ceiling limit. Expect plenty of partisan bickering, and endless debate among politicians and pundits alike about how to reduce the deficit. Just don’t expect much of a reduction in federal employment. Here are the five largest employers in the U.S. government today, and how the ongoing budget battles could affect their workforces.

5. Department of Agriculture

The U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to reduce its workforce by a couple of thousand employees.

A USDA inspector.

This agency had approximately 105,000 employees as of 2011, putting it just ahead of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, which had around 100,000 employees. The USDA has proposed a slight reduction in its workforce in its 2013 budget, down to 100,542 employees.


4. Department of Justice

The Department of Justice has around 114,000 employees.

U.S. marshals arrest a suspect.

The United States existed for almost a century without a Department of Justice before President Ulysses S. Grant signed it into law in 1870. From that humble beginning, the agency has grown to incorporate almost 114,000 employees (as of 2012.) The DOJ oversees several high-profile agencies you know about, such as the FBI, the U.S. Marshals Service and the Drug Enforcement Administration, as well as many you’ve never heard of (Office of Tribal Justice, Office on Violence Against Women). President Barack Obama’s 2013 budget proposes 27.1 billion in discretionary spending for the department, an 0.4 percent decrease from 2012. GOP lawmakers in the U.S. House have targeted several DOJ policies, most notably its pursuit of legal action against Arizona and other states that have passed tougher immigration laws. But these policies would have little effect on the agency’s overall workforce.


3. Department of Homeland Security

The Department of Homeland Security employs some 240,000 people.

U.S. Border Patrol agents.

This department came into being almost overnight in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, and now oversees almost two-dozen agencies, including the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Secret Service and FEMA. The department had approximately 240,000 employees as of 2012. Around one-quarter of those work in the much-maligned Transportation Security Administration. Critics on both sides of the aisle contend Homeland Security is too vast to be effective and that the department’s bureaucracy breeds inter-agency conflict. On the other hand, supporters argue that the previous system’s failure to share information prior to 9/11 underscored the need for the new agency. It seems you’d almost have to be a rocket scientist to sort out all the variables, which is why we’ve included a link to a Homeland Security critique by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.


2. Department of Veterans Affairs

The Department of Veterans Affairs has more than 300,000 employees.

Flyover at 2011 dedication of North Carolina park for veterans.

This department is a relative newcomer, started by President George H.W. Bush in 1989 to replace the long-running Veterans Administration. As of 2010, Veterans Affairs had almost 302,000 employees. President Obama proposed a 4.5 increase in discretionary spending for the agency in his 2013 budget, with a sharp increase in funding for medical care and other aid for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. Even the greenest rookie in Congress knows that opposing these increases in aid for U.S. veterans is political suicide. And, of course, implementing these programs will require additional VA employees.


1. Department of Defense

The Department of Defense is the largest employer in the world.

U.S. Department of Defense headquarters at the Pentagon.

It’s only fitting that the world’s largest office building, the Pentagon, serves as headquarters for the world’s largest employer, the U.S. Department of Defense. The DoD currently has 718,000 civilian employees, in addition to 1.4 million active duty service personnel and 1.1 million additional National Guard and Reserve members. With so-called “peace dividends” expected from the end of U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, Congress set a goal in 2011 of eliminating $487 billion in projected military spending over the next decade. But Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s proposal to cut almost 100,000 troops by 2017 has been fiercely opposed by Republican lawmakers, who fear the cuts will weaken the U.S. military. The proposed cuts range from 1 percent of Army forces to 3.9 percent of the Navy’s personnel. Panetta is also concerned about the number of civilian DoD employees who could lose their jobs. In a 2011 open letter to the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, Panetta noted that, “Reductions of 20 percent ($150 billion over ten years) in civilian personnel would lead to the smallest civilian workforce since DoD became a Department.” In case you’re wondering, even if these troop and civilian jobs are eventually cut, the DoD’s total employment would still far outpace the world’s second-largest employer, the People’s Liberation Army of China, which has 2.3 million overall employees.

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The author is a longtime professional journalist who has interviewed everyone from presidential contenders to hall of fame athletes to rock 'n' roll legends while covering politics, sports, and other topics for both local and national publications and websites. His latest passions are history, geography and travel. He's traveled extensively around the United States seeking out the hidden wonders of the country.