Why do some governments--both in different countries and in regions within those countries--employ more workers than others? Existing theories focus on the level of economic development, political redistribution, and social insurance. But they raise additional puzzles and do not account for all evidence or for a global trend toward decentralization of public employment. The authors propose a new theory, inspired by Russia's recent experience, that locates one motive for subnational public employment growth in a political and fiscal game between central and subnational governments. In countries with weak legal systems, local and regional officials may deliberately set their employment levels beyond their fiscal capacity, prompting bailouts from the central government, which fears the political cost to it if wage arrears accumulate and provoke strikes. The authors model the logic of such brinkmanship, derive several propositions, and show that they--and the model's assumptions--fit empirical evidence from Russia in the 1990s. Deficiencies of that country's overstaffed, underequipped, irregularly paid, ineffective, and strike-prone public sector appear to result in part from a system of dysfunctional incentives created by the interaction of electoral pressures with the system of fiscal federalism. The authors suggest parallels with Latin American countries such as Argentina and Brazil.