ON Tuesday, the federal Office of Personnel Management will begin laying off 523 employees over the next two months - a first sign of what could be much more to come.
The Clinton administration plans to cut the federal work force by 252,000 - 12 percent - by the end of 1999 and 118,300 by Oct. 1, the start of the next fiscal year.
If it succeeds, the cut will shrink the size of the federal government on a historic scale rivaled only by the build-down of armed forces after World War II.
At least in this century, says Donald Kettl, a University of Wisconsin political scientist who studies government bureaucracy, ``There has never been anything comparable.''
``We don't have any precedent for this in the federal government,'' says Calvin Mackenzie, an expert on federal employment practices at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. ``I'm not sure we have a precedent at any level of government.''
For the most part, President Clinton is not proposing that government cut any functions, only that it perform them with fewer people. Through the ``reinventing government'' project directed by Vice President Al Gore Jr., the White House directed that job cuts be concentrated on middle managers in supervisory and central administration roles.
As a political gesture, cutting the federal job roster directly addresses the high level of antigovernment feeling among voters these days, says Republican pollster Frank Luntz. ``Everyone hates bureaucrats,'' he says, especially since people envision them as faceless and far away.
``What Clinton is doing is taking one of our best issues,'' Mr. Luntz says.
Mr. Clinton has promised that the savings from the job cuts will fund programs that fight violent crime - another issue traditionally dominated by Republicans.
In practical terms, however, the deep job cuts also present some risks. ``There's a risk that we'll end up with a situation that's even worse,'' Dr. Kettl says. Often the most capable and productive people leave during cutbacks, and the government may become less competent and effective without them.
``There's a lot of talent at the senior levels of government that lubricates the system and keeps things running smoothly,'' Dr. Mackenzie says.
Letting the right people go
If the Defense Department, for example, could be redesigned, it could run with far fewer people, says former Defense undersecretary Don Hicks, now a consultant. ``The problem is: How do you get there? We don't have an efficient system, and we don't let the right people go.''
The administration would like to make the cuts painlessly through retirements, voluntary departures, and proposed buyouts that pay up to $25,000 for employees to leave.
But, so far, the trims are not coming so smoothly. Employees are not leaving voluntarily. Instead, they are clinging to their jobs at near historic levels of tenacity, as gauged by low attrition rates. And the buyout proposal is currently at an impasse between different versions passed by the House and Senate.
The major difference is that the Senate bill would require federal agencies to absorb the cost of the buyout in their budgets, while the House version waives budget limits to fund the buyout with new spending. The Defense Department has a buyout plan in effect.
Without a buyout, federal agencies will have to follow the course that the Office of Personnel Management is already taking - layoffs.
Buyouts have the disadvantage that the most capable people often take them. Layoffs have the disadvantage that those with least seniority and lowest pay are cut, which can mean lower savings and fewer minorities and women on the US payroll.
The budget proposed by Clinton last month for the fiscal year that begins in October would employ 118,300 fewer civilians than Congress appropriated money for in 1993. This more than meets an executive order Clinton signed last October requiring a 100,000-person cut.
One small catch
A small catch: Actual federal employment, adding up full-time equivalent positions, never reached the level that Congress appropriated. So the actual shrinkage in civilian employment from 1993 to 1995, under the Clinton budget, is 97,400.
Of that number, 76,900 jobs, or 79 percent, are from the civilian ranks of the Defense Department. The cuts in uniformed personnel are far higher - 184,800.
The traditional practice in discussing federal employment, however, is to leave uniformed personnel out in deference to their role. Their numbers usually rise and fall according to the wartime footing of the country.
Civilian employment in the federal government has held remarkably steady since the Eisenhower administration, with slight increases during the Johnson administration for Great Society programs and during the Reagan administration as the defense buildup added to the ranks of civilian defense workers.