Freeze and fire — opposites in nature, but pillars of Donald Trump’s approach to the federal workforce.
The president-elect plans to freeze federal hiring soon after taking office to fight corruption. Freezes have been imposed before — although not with that contorted reasoning — with results ranging from ineffective to injurious. He also wants to fire federal workers faster in the Department of Veterans Affairs, and two of his top advisers are pushing fast-track terminations government-wide.
There are serious problems with both positions. Depending on the rationale, the freeze plan defies good reason or is simply bad policy. Talk of accelerated firing is red meat for Trump supporters, but without careful planning that could threaten civil service protections for the public.
Let’s examine each proposition — freeze today, fire in a later column.
Trump’s “Contract with the American Voter” calls for “a hiring freeze on all federal employees to reduce the federal workforce through attrition (exempting military, public safety, and public health)” as part of his first-100-day agenda. The contract promotes it as one of six measures “to clean up the corruption and special interest collusion in Washington, D.C.”
The problem with Trump’s logic is obvious. To the extent there is corruption, it certainly is not the fault of those who have not yet been hired by the government. Yet that’s the main group a freeze would affect.
Trump’s transition operation did not respond to questions for this column, but last month Hope Hicks, his campaign spokeswoman, sent me this unconvincing argument for a freeze fighting corruption: “In the long term, a smaller federal workforce will mean a more honest and effective government, in which it is harder to hide corruption.”
Reducing the federal workforce long has been pushed by Republicans, but generally they provide more details than Trump has. House Republicans, for example, endorsed a 10 percent workforce cut through attrition over three years in their fiscal 2012 budget proposal prepared by then-House Budget Committee chairman Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), now the speaker. That document did not, however, call for a hiring freeze. In 2010, a bipartisan commission on fiscal responsibility suggested reaching the 10 percent target with a hiring slowdown — two new employees for every three who leave federal service.
Before Trump rushes to impose a freeze, he should take time to consult history. Required reading should be “Recent Government-Wide Hiring Freezes Prove Ineffective in Managing Federal Employment.” Published by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 1982, this report examines hiring freezes imposed by former presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.
In addition to having “little effect on Federal employment levels,” the GAO said, those freezes “disrupted agency operations, and in some cases, increased costs to the Government.”
Before Trump proceeds, he needs to know, as the GAO does, that freezes caused staffing problems, damaged recruiting efforts, disrupted government operations and lost money owed Uncle Sam.
In their drive to fulfill their missions, agencies circumvented the freezes, the GAO found. Some agencies hired part-time and temporary workers. Some used contractors and increased overtime. Some simply hired more people than allowed. Furthermore, with the military, public safety and public health agencies exempted, much of the government would be excluded from Trump’s freeze, meaning that whatever impact he foresees would be sharply restricted. The Defense and Homeland Security departments alone account for almost half of federal civilian employees. There are, of course, thousands of public safety and health staffers in other agencies.
President Obama, at his news conference Monday, urged Trump to make sure his policies are “thought through.” If Trump gives serious thought to his freeze proposal, here is another point for him to consider — over several decades, the federal workforce has declined significantly compared with the national population. “Since the 1960s, the U.S. population increased by 67 percent, the private sector workforce increased by 136 percent,” according to Obama’s fiscal 2017 budget document, “while the size of the Federal workforce rose about 10 percent.”
Here’s one more item from the GAO report for Trump to ponder. Because the Carter and Reagan freezes led to the loss of 445 IRS revenue agent and auditor staff-years, the amount of tax dollars lost to the government was more than 20 times the amount saved in salary and benefits.
Trump, you’re a businessman. Does that sound like a good deal?
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