Trump said he wants to “drain the swamp” in Washington. What does that mean for federal employees here?
A campaign statement said that Trump would institute “a hiring freeze on all federal employees to reduce the federal workforce through attrition (exempting military, public safety, and public health).”
That reflects language that has been in budget plans that have passed the Republican-controlled House several times in recent years but that never have been enacted, since President Obama almost certainly would have vetoed them.
Those plans further set a goal of reducing the workforce by 10 percent, although the Trump position paper set no numeric goal.
A separate campaign statement said the workforce has “many great and committed people” and “in the long term, a smaller federal workforce will mean a more honest and effective government, in which it is harder to hide corruption.”
Also, remember that only about 15 percent of the federal workforce is based in the Washington area, so reductions would fall not just here but nationwide.
Meanwhile, another statement called for increasing the number of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. And a stronger emphasis on border security probably would translate into adding Border Patrol agents.
By exempting some categories from cuts and allowing growth elsewhere, the cuts would fall even harder on other programs and agencies. One result could be greater reliance on contractors to get the work done.
Other elements of Trump’s plan include a five-year ban on White House and congressional officials from becoming lobbyists after they leave government service and a lifetime ban on White House officials lobbying on behalf of a foreign government. Those generally would not affect career federal workers.
Trump is famous for saying, “You’re fired!” Can he just go around doing that to federal workers?
A distinction must be made here between political appointees and career federal employees — he certainly can, and will, say that to the former group, but things are more complex regarding the latter group.
There are about 4,000 political appointees in the executive branch who serve at the pleasure of the president. Of those, about 1,100 require Senate confirmation and hold senior jobs at the various departments and smaller agencies. The other roughly 2,900 fill various roles, including as assistants to those higher officials and as the layer between them and the career workforce.
With few exceptions, they will be gone by the inauguration or soon afterward and the Trump administration will replace them with its own people.
The career federal workforce is much larger — some 1.8 million permanent, full-time, nonseasonal employees, plus several hundred thousand temporary, part-time or seasonal workers, excluding the self-funding U.S. Postal Service. They receive various protections under civil-service law, including the rights to appeal personnel actions, including firing for merely political reasons.
Most cuts to federal employment are the result of budget decisions affecting entire programs rather than individuals. Instead of conducting layoffs, a complex and costly process in the government, it’s more common for agencies to offer incentives to leave, such as loosening retirement eligibility rules and offering buyout payments that can be up to $25,000, pretax.
Will there be an erosion of federal employees’ job rights?
The level of accountability in the federal workforce is another issue Republicans in Congress have been pushing in recent years, citing scandals at agencies including the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Veterans Affairs. They have had some success and could well have more with the White House and Congress in their control.
In 2014, a bipartisan law was enacted to limit disciplinary appeal rights of senior executives at VA, but the Obama administration made little use of that authority and this year stopped using it in the face of a court challenge alleging the restrictions violated due-process rights. That effectively put the brakes on several separate attempts to extend those restrictions to executives government-wide and to limit the rights of all VA employees. Those bids were widely seen as setting a precedent, if successful, for similar restrictions government-wide.
However, a law enacted in late September with Obama’s consent strengthened protections for VA employees who blow the whistle and required discipline up to and including firing for managers who retaliate against them.
A campaign statement said Trump would “use the powers of the presidency to remove and discipline the federal employees and managers who have violated the public’s trust and failed to carry out the duties on behalf of our veterans”; “ask that Congress pass legislation that empowers the Secretary of the VA to discipline or terminate any employee who has jeopardized the health, safety or well-being of a veteran”; “create a commission to investigate all the fraud, coverups, and wrong-doing that has taken place in the VA, and present these findings to Congress to spur legislative reform”; and “protect and promote honest employees at the VA who highlight wrongdoing, and guarantee their jobs will be protected.”
While that statement addressed only VA, such moves also could set a precedent for similar policies elsewhere.
Other ideas whose chances of enactment probably would improve include extending from one year to two the probation period in which newly hired employees have few job rights, and limiting the practice of putting employees under investigation for disciplinary action on paid leave, which sometimes extends many months or even years.
Trump wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). What would that mean for federal employees’ health benefits?
Maybe not much. The Federal Employees Health Benefits Program has been in existence for many decades and operates under a separate set of laws. That program already had included some features made national policy as part of the ACA, such as a ban on denying coverage because of a preexisting condition.
One change in that law that did directly impact the FEHBP was to allow coverage of children to continue until they reach age 26; the previous cutoff was 22. That is one provision of the ACA that might be salvaged even in a general repeal.
Another provision of direct impact required members of Congress and certain staff members to leave the FEHBP program. One result has been years of wrangling over how the administration interpreted that provision by allowing them to keep the employer contribution toward health care under certain circumstances. Whether they would simply be returned to the FEHBP is an open question.
Will retirement and other benefits be on the chopping block?
This requires speculation. While the campaign statements did not directly address those benefits, those same Republican budget plans whose chances for enactment have now improved have targeted benefits in various ways.
Several of those plans have advocated increasing the required employee contribution toward retirement. Some have specified that the employer and employee shares should be made equal, which for most employees would require they pay in about 6 percent more of their salary; several smaller increases have been enacted in recent years affecting only employees hired after their effective dates.
Other recommendations have included eliminating a retirement supplement paid to many who retire relatively early and reducing the interest the government pays in the most popular investment fund in the Thrift Savings Plan, the 401(k)-style program for federal workers.
Another common theme has been to make the government contribution toward the FEHBP less generous. Currently, the government pays about 70 percent of the total premium as the employer. Several plans have recommended that it pay a fixed dollar amount instead and increase that amount by less than the overall cost growth in the program. That could spur many enrollees to shift to lower-cost plans, while those who don’t could end up paying a greater share toward their health insurance.