President-elect Donald Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress are drawing up plans to take on the government bureaucracy they have long railed against, by eroding job protections and grinding down benefits that federal workers have received for a generation.
These changes were once unthinkable to federal employees, their unions and their supporters in Congress. But Trump’s election as an outsider promising to shake up a system he told voters is awash in “waste, fraud and abuse” has conservatives optimistic that they could do now what Republicans have been unable to do in the 133 years since the modern civil service was created.
“You have the country moving to the right and being much more anti-Washington than it was,” said former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), a leading Trump adviser who serves on the president-elect’s transition team.
“We’re going to have to get the country to understand how big the problem is, the human costs of it and why it’s absolutely essential to reform,” said Gingrich, who urged Trump to shrink big government and overhaul the “job-for-life” guarantee of federal work.
Gingrich predicted that Stephen K. Bannon, a former Breitbart News chief who helped steer Trump’s campaign and is now one of his most influential advisers, would lead the effort. “It’s a big, big project,” he said.
The project aligns with Bannon’s long-stated warnings about the corrupting influence of government and a capital city rampant with “crony capitalism.”
Breitbart headlines also provide a possible insight into his views, with federal employees described as overpaid, too numerous and a “privileged class.”
“Number of Government Employees Now Surpasses Manufacturing Jobs by 9,977,000,” the website proclaimed in November. There are 2.1 million federal civilian employees.
Top Republicans on Capitol Hill say their first priority will be making it easier to fire employees regarded as incompetent or who break the rules.
“It’s nearly impossible to fire somebody,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. “When the overwhelming majority do a good job and the one bad apple is there viewing pornography, I want people to be held accountable.”
Chaffetz said he plans to push through wholesale changes to the generous retirement benefits that federal workers receive, by shifting to a market-driven, 401(k)-style plan for new employees.
He said the model would be his home state, which six years ago replaced the defined benefit pensions that have disappeared at most private companies with a defined contribution plan for new state and municipal workers.
“We have a Republican president who will help us drive this to the finish line,” Chaffetz said.
The promises go hand in hand with Trump’s promise to shrink the size and reach of government, from eliminating some agencies outright to lifting regulations and running the bureaucracy with fewer people.
Gingrich said the Trump administration probably would look for guidance from Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), who stripped public employee unions of most of their collective-bargaining rights and forced workers to pay more into their pensions and for health care in what became a bitter political fight.
The White House also can look for lessons from policies advocated by Vice President-elect Mike Pence.
As Indiana governor, Pence battled public employee unions and approved pay increases for state workers who receive good performance reviews, a strategy tried at the Defense Department under President George W. Bush but which was poorly managed and eventually abolished. The pay-for-performance idea is nonetheless a rebuke to the government’s system of raises based on longevity.
“We’re going to be playing defense for at least a couple of years,” acknowledged William R. Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, the third-largest federal union.
“The most immediate worry is: How are we going to shrink government?” Dougan said. “Are we going to lay people off? Eliminate whole agencies or do it through attrition?”
Trump has promised that in his first 100 days in office he will freeze hiring by not replacing employees who leave. The military and employees in public health and safety roles would be exempt, according to the president-elect’s Contract with the American Voter.
He has pledged to eliminate two regulations for every new one passed and shut down the Education Department and parts of the Environmental Protection Agency.
But he also wants a military with more ships, planes and troops. He has said he wants to triple the number of immigration enforcement agents and beef up the Border Patrol by thousands.
So a selective hiring freeze may be more realistic, Trump advisers say, where agencies that Republicans dislike shrink and ones they like grow.
Trump can freeze hiring without Congress’s approval, with an executive order or less formal instructions to federal agencies.
Democrats and federal employee unions are preparing to fight the image of government workers as a privileged class and the bureaucracy as a bloated mess.
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D), whose Northern Virginia district includes thousands of federal workers, said: “What study are they citing saying there are too many federal employees? Are you going to make a bunch of exceptions, in which case your plan looks like Swiss cheese?”
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the oversight committee, said in an email that he would “fight any effort to roll back civil service protections” — and worried that whistle blowers could lose their legal right to be immune from retaliation.
Others raise the specter that Republican proposals could allow political favoritism to creep into a system Congress created in 1883 to remove federal jobs from patronage ranks.
“Of course we want accountability,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who will enter the Senate in January, “but we also want to protect against political favoritism. It’s important that we not allow the civil service to be politicized.”
Congressional Republicans have clamored for years for a smaller bureaucracy and a workforce that resembles the private sector. The calls quickened after a string of scandals, particularly at the Department of Veterans Affairs, where managers instructed employees to falsify patient wait times to cover up delays for medical appointments.
But much of this GOP-written legislation was opposed by the Obama administration and blocked by Senate Democrats.
Now, with a Trump White House eliminating a veto threat, conservatives see their vision within reach.
And Democrats acknowledge that senators who are nervously looking to reelection bids in 2018 and represent red states friendly to Trump may not fall on their swords to defend federal employees, whose presence is more diffuse outside the Washington area.
Many inside and outside government agree that change to the way federal workers are hired, promoted and disciplined is long overdue. Employees under investigation for breaking the rules can sit at home for years — collecting paychecks and benefits — while their cases drag on. Performance rankings are widely panned as a joke, because the vast majority of workers are rated as exceeding expectations or doing outstanding work.
Federal workers are seldom fired for poor performance — and it can take years for managers to make a successful case for dismissal for misconduct. About 0.5 percent of the civil service gets fired every year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“The civil service system fails at almost everything it was designed to do,” said Paul Light, a civil service expert at New York University. “It’s very slow at hiring, negligent in disciplining, permissive in promoting.”
“There’s a private awareness among Democrats and Republicans alike that we need to do something about this,” he said.
Trump says he wants to freeze hiring to clean up corruption in government — but not necessarily to save money, a connection roundly dismissed by critics.
“Look at what’s happening with every agency — waste, fraud and abuse,” he said on the campaign trail. “We will cut so much, your head will spin.”
Other presidents, including Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, have frozen hiring to shrink government — but rarely succeeded for long periods. Reagan imposed a freeze the day he came into office in 1981 that was retroactive to Election Day, forcing managers to renege on job offers to hundreds of people. But the government soon ballooned with active-duty military and civilians as he began a massive defense buildup.
The civilian workforce is the smallest it has been since Reagan left office, after plummeting under Clinton and expanding under Bush and President Obama.
Yet Republicans say a leaner government goes hand in hand with a more accountable one in which managers and rank-and-file employees who’ve failed should not get to keep their jobs.
These changes have taken root, with a bipartisan law in 2014 to limit the appeal rights of senior executives at Veterans Affairs who face discipline for wrongdoing.
Since then, similar restrictions for employees across government have stalled in Congress, in part because the Obama administration made little use of its new authority — and this year stopped using it altogether in the face of a court challenge alleging that it violated employees’ right to due process.
Other changes could result in longer probation for new employees, with the goal of making it easier for managers to let poor performers go since they would have little job protections. This has started at the Defense Department, where the current standard has doubled to two years.
These changes are vigorously opposed by unions, which could be severely weakened under GOP plans to eventually wipe out what’s known as “official time,” union work done by employees who continue to receive full salary and benefits.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said in an email that he will reach out to federal employee unions as his panel works to enact “long-overdue reforms to our civil service.”
Said Johnson: “If we start with areas of agreement, I am confident that we can make continuous improvements to the functionality of the federal workforce.”
Eric Yoder contributed to this report.