Last year, when talking about the federal workforce, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said, “You can’t drain the swamp and leave all the people in it.”
This week, he released a Trump administration budget for fiscal 2019 that shows the White House expects to increase those it considers swamp dwellers. At the same time, the administration struck at federal labor unions that represent 60 percent of the government’s staffers.
Estimated employment levels for 2019 will be higher than those for 2017 and 2018, while maintaining just under 2.1 million civilian employees, according to the “Strengthening the Federal Workforce” budget appendix.
Although a temporary hiring freeze imposed by President Trump early in his term resulted in “substantial decreases” to workforces at the departments of Agriculture, Interior, Treasury, Housing and Urban Development and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the administration projects higher staff levels at seven mostly security-related agencies, including the departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs, Homeland Security and Commerce, which is gearing up for the 2020 Census.
The predicted workforce growth from this fiscal year to the next is slight, about 0.5 percent. But it comes in the face of Trump’s plan to eliminate dozens of programs.
The emphasis is on “plan.” Presidential budgets often are considered dead on arrival on Capitol Hill, where Congress must approve spending. Nonetheless, Trump’s budget is a clear indication of his priorities and, since he is president, worth some attention.
The “Major Savings and Reforms” chapter of the budget shows 62 federal programs would be eliminated through zero funding. Among them are the Agricultural Department’s rural water and wastewater grants, the Education Department’s student support and academic enrichment grants, the Health and Human Services Department’s low-income home energy assistant program, the Labor Department’s Indian and Native American Program, and development assistance provided through the State Department and the Agency for International Development.
These are what the budget calls “major discretionary eliminations” and would save almost $26 billion over 2017 expenditures. Another $23 billion is projected in “major discretionary reductions.”
OMB did not respond to questions about the impact the cuts would have on employment, leaving workers wondering, sometimes because of vague warnings.
The Public Health Service (PHS) Commissioned Corps’ is not on the major eliminations or major reductions lists, but its future is uncertain. The Corps’ “mission assignments and functions have not evolved in step with the public health needs of the Nation,” says the main budget document. “It is time for that to change. HHS is committed to providing the best public health services and emergency response at the lowest cost, and is undertaking a comprehensive look at how the Corps is structured.”
That’s under a heading that says the budget “Modernizes How the Government Employs Public Health Professionals.” “Modernizing,” like “rightsizing,” often is a euphemism for cutting. “Lowest cost” probably means fewer staffers.
“To say that we were surprised by it would be a gross understatement,” Jim Currie, executive director of the Commissioned Officers Association, said of the projected PHS hit. The association represents PHS uniformed officers. “It is filled with erroneous information and implications, and it is clear that it was written by someone with an ax to grind about the Commissioned Corps.”
“Rather than suggesting a reduction in the Commissioned Corps,” Currie added, “the executive branch of government should be seeking ways to increase its size and aid its effectiveness by providing the support it needs, such as by providing the training funds that have not been budgeted for many years.”
While the impact of the budget on PHS staffers remains a question, it is clear the least fortunate would suffer from many of Trump’s proposed cuts.
Programs for the poor and low-income residents are targeted by Trump’s budget, which says it “rightsizes the proper role of the federal government,” citing “proposals to eliminate low-performing or ineffective programs, such as the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) and the Community Services Block Grant (CSBG),” among many others.
Another area that Trump seeks to cut is the influence of federal unions. “Agency managers will be encouraged to restore management prerogatives that have been ceded to Federal labor unions,” the workforce appendix says.
Yet only so much could have been ceded because, as that document notes, federal unions have far less authority than those in other sectors.
“Federal statute defines the parameters of collective bargaining, which are different than those in the private sector and State or local governments,” the budget document says. “Federal employees are not allowed to strike and unions must represent all eligible employees regardless of paid membership. Fewer items are negotiable than in the private sector.”
Nonetheless, the budget implicitly blames federal labor organizations for “Federal employer-employee relations activities [that] currently consume considerable management time and taxpayer resources, and may negatively impact efficiency, effectiveness, cost of operations, and employee accountability and performance,” adding “collective bargaining contracts can have a significant impact on agency performance, workplace productivity, and employee satisfaction.”
Trump launched his attack on union influence in September, with an executive order abolishing labor-management forums, which facilitated communication between labor and management on issues such as workplace safety and productivity. To make sure managers got the message, the budget says “agencies were further instructed to remove any internal policies, programs, or guidelines related to existing forums.”
Matt Biggs, legislative director for the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, which represents federal staffers at several agencies, including NASA, the Social Security Administration and Interior, said, “Claims in this budget that seek to link federal unions to increased taxpayer costs are not only false, but without any credible evidence to support the claim … Overall, the language in this budget pertaining to federal unions and the workers is all about ideology, and little to do with reality.”