J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, gets a hug from member Verna Pitts at union headquarters. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

The federal workforce. Blech. Blech, now more than ever, or so it seems, in the minds of the new administration. “A waste of your money,” President Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, said in March about federal climate-change research. “Can we really continue to ask a coal miner in West Virginia or a single mom in Detroit to pay for these programs?” he had said about public broadcasting. “Taxpayers are stuck paying for overly generous compensation,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chair of the House subcommittee on government operations, said about federal employees as a whole — the big morass of some 2.8 million civil servants nationwide.

Donald Trump, master of punchy catchphrases, had spent his campaign and the early days of his presidency promising to do the same thing: “Drain that swamp.”

The swamp was the federal government of Washington.

The epicenter of the swamp was metaphorically at 80 F St. NW, in the office of a stocky 66-year-old man named J. David Cox.

Cox is the president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal workers union in America. More than 300,000 dues-paying members, and about 400,000 more also protected by default. “Every Zip code in America,” as Cox likes to say. “Coast to coast, Guam to Europe.”

The Environmental Protection Agency, with its 31 percent proposed budget cut for 2018? AFGE represents a portion of its employees. The Department of Commerce, with a 16 percent cut? An AFGE agency. Department of Energy? Transportation? Labor? Justice? Health and Human Services? The Census Bureau?

AFGE, all of them, and all of them earmarked for slashes in what Cox had deemed “the worst budget I’ve ever seen.”

And also: “Federal employee morale is about as low as I’ve ever seen it, in my pushing-40 years of experience in the federal system.”

Federal employees had become a punching bag, and so on a recent Friday, Cox took his lunch to his desk and set about dialing a few local union chapters to see just how punched his members felt.

His first number: a prison guard in Pennsylvania, the president of a local Bureau of Prisons union.

“Now, they haven’t taken your keys away from you, where you can’t get out, have they, Chris?” Cox joked.

“Nah, not yet anyway,” the man laughed.

“The hiring freeze, y’all are still affected? Is morale up or down?”

“It’s not good. Especially because of the budget. We told our congressmen we were going to get billboards and put them up saying they don’t support law enforcement.”

His second number: the president of an EPA chapter in Michigan.

“How are you all doing, Tad?” he asked. “I want you to know, I appreciate you.”

“We’re running a long fight,” the man sighed. “We’ve been trying to talk to congressmen out here to tell them about their constituents who work in our laboratories. But I had two constituents who were afraid to come to a meeting with their own congressmen because they feared reprisal. This is the environment that’s been created. We are citizens afraid to talk to our own elected officials.”

“Organize, organize, organize,” Cox told him. “Mobilize, mobilize, mobilize.”

Three floors down from Cox’s office another EPA chapter president named Nate James had come to AFGE’s offices for a meeting. As he waited in a conference room, he talked about what it was like to work at the headquarters of the agency that he’d always associated with clean air and water, but which had come to represent controversy and politicization.

“It’s deadly quiet in the office,” said James. “Normally we’re upbeat, but it’s deadly quiet.” He had put out a call for questions to his office’s 2,500 employees, thinking that giving his colleagues a venue to talk about things might ease some of their stress. But out of all the employees, only two questions came in. One asked for any information, any at all, about what might happen to the agency.

The other one said, “We want to do good work, but how hard do you work on something that might be shut down?”

In the 1880s, a senator from Ohio named George Pendleton — “Gentleman George” — sponsored a bill to save the federal government from itself. The workforce was at the time truly a swamp, one of back-scratching cronyism and patronage. His bill, the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, ended up creating the modern federal workforce — professionalizing it and making it into a meritocracy. It also became something else: a reliable ladder rung for reaching the middle class, a pathway to the American Dream.

In the 1960s, J. David Cox decided to become a nurse, enamored of the profession after watching the nurses who worked so hard to care for his ailing father. Some schools he applied to wouldn’t have him; nursing was for women, they told him. But he did become one, joining the psychiatric division of a federal hospital, and also joining the union there, where he became a chapter officer. He rose through the ranks and eventually became the boss of the whole thing, devoted enough to AFGE that his wife sometimes sighed that his gold AFGE ring might as well be a second wedding band.

The matters of navigating a psychiatric ward are not entirely separate from the matters of navigating Capitol Hill, and now Cox is using all of his experience and training to try, he hoped, to save the federal government from cutting itself to ribbons.

“We got to pull every Republican our way, and we got to hold every Democrat,” Cox told his staff at one morning meeting.


Cox testifies during a Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs hearing in May on pending legislation. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

He wants to get the word out about potential perilous outcomes of the 2018 budget proposals, he said. Encourage members to call their representatives in Congress, to visit them at their home offices. Recruit new members, because due to job attrition and retirement, AFGE had to obtain 5,000 more a month just to end up breaking even. It was better to grow — to show Congress that they were a voice to be reckoned with.

The union’s largest agencies, the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, had received proposed increases, not decreases, but the increases looked like they might come in the form of equipment and not people, Cox thought, so they still worried him.

“Mr. Bill?” he said now, turning toward one of his staff members. “I want another 10,000 members.”

“I’ll get them for you,” the man said. “In Pittsburgh last week, we had the phones going, we had the popcorn machines popping, and we made over 200 calls.”

A few weeks later, Cox went to New York to mobilize more.

He had reserved a room at the federal building downtown for a Lunch-and-Learn, a recruitment event where workers listened to a presentation and then got a coupon for food.

“So you’re the voice I keep hearing,” one employee told Cox, laughing about the recorded calls she received with Cox’s voice on them.

He guffawed. “You know, once I was walking through airport security and one of the agents said to me, ‘You’re the man who calls me all the time.’ ”

The Transportation Security Administration? An AFGE agency.

A group of about 30 people sits around the table and after Cox explained what he saw as the benefits of joining — collective bargaining, negotiating retirement and health benefits — he made a plea:

“Brothers and sisters, who would like to pick up that ink pen, turn that page over, and become the newest member of the AFGE?!”

A man in a collared shirt and khaki pants raised his hand. He would. He would be the newest member.

Cox erupted into applause, and the rest of the room followed. “Y’all go downstairs now,” he said. “Y’all go downstairs and send me up some more EPA folk.”

Another Friday, another morning. Earlier in the week, Congress had approved a bill to fund the government through the end of 2017. It had not yet incorporated many of the proposed cuts that the White House had wanted for 2018, but Cox felt like he was merely treading water before the next big wave hit.

“We scraped by this time,” Cox told the staff at the morning meeting. “But come this fall, it’s going to be a bloodbath.”

He got on the phone to do an interview with an NPR affiliate that wanted to hear about what could happen next. “What are you getting ready for?” the interviewer asked him.

“We’re bracing,” he said. And he wanted to make it clear, he said, that cuts would not only mean fewer government employees but also fewer government services. “Longer lines in the airport,” he said. “Worse air for children with asthma.”

“That was good,” his chief of staff told him when the call was over. Especially the part, he said, where Cox had emphasized that it wasn’t just about jobs that would be cut, but service to the American people.

“All right, what do I have next?” Cox said, looking through the rest of his schedule. Nine more events. Interviews, and phone calls, and an EPA appreciation event.

The mood was buoyant now, but the general tone of the past several weeks had been one of anxiety and trepidation.

On a mass phone call earlier in the week — a monthly Q&A that was open to any federal employee around the country who wanted to join in — the AFGE staff could hear the worry in the callers’ voices.

In a typical month, they might expect 5,000 callers to dial in, and Cox would stay on the line and answer any unique questions.

But at this one, Cox’s staff had sat in their conference room in Washington and watched on a screen as the numbers ticked up and up from around the country: 1,209 callers on the line, then 2,930, then 5,214, and then suddenly more than 7,000 federal workers were all lining up in a queue to share what terrified them. “Do you think there will be a shutdown?” asked someone from Georgia. “If there is, would it be like last time where most of us ended up working anyway?” asked someone from New York.

Cox talked and talked until his voice was hoarse, until one of his staffers said, “Last question,” even though there were still more in the queue.