President Trump directs, but it is federal employees who do.
When it comes to his government hiring freeze, the managers and supervisors who have to implement it — and suffer its consequences — don’t want to do it.
At a Senate hearing Thursday, representatives of the Federal Managers Association (FMA) and the Senior Executives Association (SEA) outlined how the freeze is detrimental and counter-productive. Even the Republican subcommittee chairman dumped, however gently, on the president’s plan.
Trump, whose quick-draw actions precede thoughtful consideration of consequences, ordered the freeze on Jan. 23, just three days after taking office. Though the freeze is now in effect, it’s not too late for him to listen to those who have to manage the repercussions of his short-sighted directive.
Here is some of what they told the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs federal management subcommittee.
FMA President Renee M. Johnson: “FMA steadfastly opposes any blind, arbitrary plans to cut the federal workforce. … Managers need the tools that enable them to achieve their goals of ensuring national security, public safety, and each American’s quality of life. … The American taxpayer would be better served with improvements to the workforce, not blind cuts. All federal agencies should be allowed to match hiring actions that align with essential mission and funding.”
SEA President Bill Valdez: “SEA has concerns that the freeze, coupled with negative views of federal workers in recent years in Congress and the press, will have a chilling effect on the ability of the federal government to attract and recruit talent it needs, particularly from veterans, millennials including students graduating college this spring, and to fill mission critical skills gaps.”
Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), chairman of the subcommittee, said Trump “has every right to alter the status quo through this valid executive action.” But the question is not whether Trump had the right to impose a hiring freeze. The question is was it the right decision. Lankford knows the answer, though he framed it in the cautious language of someone careful not to cross a president from his own party: “Attrition through a hiring freeze may not be the optimal solution for creating an efficient and effective federal workforce.”
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), the top Democrat on the panel, was more direct: “From making sure the food we eat is safe, to answering taxpayers’ questions, to ensuring our veterans are cared for, to protecting our nation from harm — federal employees work to make North Dakota and our country a better place to live every single day. When we fail to fill needed vacancies unnecessarily, the only people we are hurting are ourselves. Across the board cuts and a shrinking of the overall federal workforce are not the answer to making the federal government more efficient or effective.”
The hearing touched on a variety of federal workforce issues, but Lankford, a more considered and reasonable man than some of his Republican colleagues, did not get into House moves that could have severe ramifications for the political independence of federal agencies.
Those plans combined with Trump’s freeze amount to a hire fewer, fire faster approach to workforce management.
“The civil service is clearly in danger of being compromised through political interference,” said a statement from the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the largest federal employee union.
In January, even before Trump was inaugurated, House Republicans reinstated the Holman Rule that could be used to cut the pay of individual federal workers.
Perhaps the most draconian measure is a bill from last year that Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Ind.) said he plans to reintroduce. It would allow new federal employees to be suspended or fired for “no cause at all.” This would be an unambiguous assault on due process procedures that protect taxpayers from government by political favoritism.
Another bill, introduced this month by Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-Ga.), would give “federal managers the option to expedite the dismissal process of bad employees,” according to his office. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, if effective and meaningful due process rights are maintained. That, however, can be a big “if” in today’s climate.
Loudermilk dubbed his bill the MERIT Act, for Modern Employment Reform, Improvement and Transformation. It would undercut the ability of workers to win appeals to the Merit Systems Protection Board by lowering the burden of proof agencies need to suspend or fire them.
“Attacks on government employees and the civil service in general may make for good politics, but they make for bad government,” AFGE President J. David Cox Sr. told the hearing. “Due process for civil servants…is a cornerstone of our system of democracy and public administration.”