Leave it to Donald Trump to bring a cold front to Washington’s warm winter.
His plan to cut $54 billion in domestic discretionary spending could make his hiring freeze look like a sunny day. Yet the president’s budget plans are so vague at this point, federal employees don’t know how to dress.
They should prepare for the worst. Taxpayers too.
“I don’t see how you do what he is proposing to do without RIFs (reductions in force) and layoffs,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), the ranking Democrat on the House Government Operations Subcommittee. “I think RIFs are inevitable.”
Trump’s budget plan is just a plan at this point, so feds don’t need to get another job yet.
One thing is certain — uncertainty is a big part of the problem. The huge proposed cut — Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney called it the “largest-proposed reduction since the early years of the Reagan administration” — generates more questions and anxiety.
“Uncertainty is the bane of efficient operations,” said Max Stier, president of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, which studies the federal workforce. “You don’t want it.”
The hiring freeze Trump imposed in January is another source of uncertainty. It has no set end date. Trump’s hiring freeze memorandum says it will conclude when OMB implements “a long-term plan to reduce the size of the Federal Government’s workforce through attrition.”
“Attrition” does not mean layoffs. Yet, the magnitude of his proposed cuts mean RIFs can’t be ruled out.
Matt Biggs, legislative director of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, said his federal employee members fear the impact Trump’s budget could have on their agencies and their jobs. “Budget cuts and an otherwise undermining of their missions,” Biggs said, leave workers feeling “vulnerable.”
There is no way to manage the steep cuts Trump plans without pain. If RIFs don’t happen, there are other ways agencies can save money. None of them feel good. The hiring freeze could be extended. Another pay freeze could be imposed. Instead of layoffs, agencies could offer buyouts, potentially leading to workplace instability. All of these come with problems.
Trump’s cuts would make life difficult not just for federal employees, but also for the millions who use their services.
Some staffers are not so afraid “of losing their jobs outright at the moment — although this is subject to change,” said Randy Erwin, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, “but they are worried about the impact of additional cuts on services and programs.”
Congressional shortchanging forced the Internal Revenue Service to provide service so bad — long telephone wait times for example — that even IRS Commissioner John Koskinen once called it “abysmal.”
The Social Security Administration cut office hours to save money in 2012, leaving taxpayers disturbed and inconvenienced.
Yet, it is staff-heavy agencies such as these, with a high percentage of workers providing direct service to the people, where staffing cuts are the most likely, said Sharon Parrott, senior fellow and counselor at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “because so much of their budgets is in staffing.”
Mulvaney called Trump’s spending proposal “a true America-first budget.” But it portends annoyance and aggravation for Americans seeking decent service from federal agencies.
“Many of the federal agencies that would be targeted by these budget cuts already have been cut to the bone this decade as a result of harmful austerity policies,” said American Federation of Government Employees President J. David Cox Sr. “Americans see firsthand the result of these budget cuts when they have to wait in longer lines to visit a Social Security office or go through airport security screening.
“Further cuts could leave some agencies with not enough employees to do the work that’s required, forcing them in some cases to outsource the work to more costly contractors — negating any of the financial benefit from the cuts in the first place.”
It’s too early to know exactly what Trump’s cuts would mean for the workforce, but Connolly is sure it will have “enormous ramifications” for government staffers.
“I think it’s going to have huge impact on federal workforce,” he added, “and not a good one.”