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A government shutdown and the biggest raise in a decade: How Trump gave federal workers whiplash in 2019

President Trump signs a defense bill Dec. 20 that includes 12-week paid parental leave for federal workers.
President Trump signs a defense bill Dec. 20 that includes 12-week paid parental leave for federal workers. (Al Drago/Bloomberg News)
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It started as one of the worst years for federal employees in recent memory, as President Trump’s demands for billions of dollars for a border wall led to a historic partial shutdown of the government that stretched for 35 jittery days.

It ended on a high note, as the president signed off on 12 weeks of paid leave for new parents, a generous raise and a midweek vacation day before Christmas against the recommendation of his own staff — and as he issued an exuberant letter of thanks to “Our Incredible Federal Workforce.”

In between, the 2.1 million civil servants who work in the government were whipsawed by a president who attacked the bureaucracy, railed against career officials who testified in the impeachment inquiry, rebuked weather forecasters over their hurricane predictions and disparaged FBI officials for their handling of the Russia investigation.

The bread-and-butter benefits that followed, after many employees felt under siege by their president, underscore Trump’s unorthodox relationship with the permanent workforce that keeps the sprawling federal presence operating around the clock.

Many of Trump’s top aides have long been openly hostile toward a bureaucracy they view as wasteful and too big. But Trump’s actions, in the view of both supporters and critics, often hinge less on ideology than on his gut — and what works for him politically. His recent moves also have given hope to some federal workers that he has learned their value.

“I think it’s overall creating a positive buzz in my office,” John Milan Sebik, a claims specialist for the Social Security Administration in Jersey City, said of his co-workers’ reaction to the year-end surprises. “They’re happy. They’re actually shocked.”

Sebik, 48, said the enthusiasm that “things might be turning for us” is tempered by uncertainty over what could come next and frustration with the decision of a new commissioner to cancel telework for 12,000 employees. The hard feelings from that decision run deep, he said.

“Trump put a cherry and icing on the cake. The cake is still burnt,” Sebik said.

Federal workers have often served as a vehicle for Trump to advance his own interests in the moment, critics say, and as leverage in the president’s standoffs with opponents.

“Like everything else he does, it’s transactional,” said Rick Tyler, a Republican strategist and ­MSNBC political analyst who has been a sharp critic of Trump. He compared the president’s approach to that of a callous chief executive who views his employees as “expendable or exploitable.”

The government, of course, works differently from a private company. “All of these people work for the American public,” Tyler said.

Asked how Trump reconciles his year-end boost to the workforce with his attacks on some career rank-and-file employees, White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said some federal workers have shown bias against the president.

“The President appreciates the dedication, sacrifice, and hard work of federal employees found across this great country,” Gidley said in a statement. “Unfortunately, there is evidence that shows some federal workers . . . used their power to try and stop the duly elected president’s agenda, and undermine his Presidency — that’s not only despicable selfish behavior, it’s a dangerous threat to our republic.”

Trump struck a deal with House Democrats weeks ago to pass a defense bill that gives federal employees their biggest victory in nearly 30 years, the costly parental leave benefit viewed by many of his top advisers as a momentous concession. The president, however, saw a rare opportunity to win approval for a pet project, his proposed sixth branch of the military dubbed the Space Force, ahead of the 2020 election.

Democrats leveraged Trump’s fixation with a Space Force to pursue a paid parental leave victory for federal employees

Democrats achieved their goal of a significant raise for the workforce in budget negotiations, in exchange for White House priorities that included border wall funding. The result was a 3.1 percent federal pay hike starting in January, greater than any raises in the Obama era, when the recession led to a three-year freeze.

Trump took credit for both changes in his year-end letter to federal employees, citing a campaign promise “to deliver Paid Family Leave to workers across the nation” and his victory overcoming “partisan gridlock” to deliver parental leave and a raise.

Such credit-taking would not be possible, though, without the House takeover by worker-friendly Democrats who forced the president to the negotiating table, said Democratic Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, whose Northern Virginia district includes tens of thousands of federal workers.

“The fact that these things got done were despite his efforts, not because of them,” Connolly said.

He co-sponsored legislation months ago to give the workforce a 3.6 percent raise, and Democrats have pressed for paid family leave for years.

Federal employee unions are united in cheering the unexpected pocketbook wins but unforgiving of other White House actions against them. Those include an accelerating crackdown on union activity, a rollback of telework at many agencies and the relocation of hundreds of employees in the Agriculture Department out of Washington to the Midwest.

Read Trump’s holiday letter to federal employees

When nearly half of the staff at the Agriculture Department’s economic research offices quit rather than relocate, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney joked that the administration had found “a wonderful way to streamline government.”

“Most of them are looking at Trump’s letter and saying, ‘You’re writing us this letter, but look at what’s happened throughout the year,’ ” said Andrew Huddleston, spokesman for the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest union.

Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents about 150,000 employees, recalled that as employees went unpaid during a shutdown over Congress’s refusal to fund $5.7 billion for Trump’s border wall, Trump allowed a pay freeze for 2019 to take effect. Pressure from unions and lawmakers in Congress eventually overturned it.

“If the question is how the administration has treated federal employees in their workplace, I think the answer is clear,” Reardon said in a statement.

The shutdown is giving some Trump advisers what they’ve long wanted: A smaller government

At the same time, Trump’s actions have complicated conservatives’ goals to shrink government and hold employees accountable. After an 18-month effort by top budget officials to dissolve the Office of Personnel Management and parcel out its functions to other offices, the president reversed course late this fall after watching a local government program showing that the plan was ill-conceived and had little support in Congress.

He told aides that breaking up the agency would bring him poor reviews. In a split second, stability returned to a workplace whose employees had been convulsed by uncertainty.

Other Trump actions have contradicted the policies of his own administration. As the union representing Border Patrol agents finalized a new contract this fall, Trump urged his U.S. Customs and Border Protection commissioner to agree to fund 74 new union positions pulling agents from their jobs to focus on labor matters full time.

The agreement was startling, not just because the White House has called the flow of undocumented immigrants at the U.S. southern border a national security crisis requiring maximum staffing, but because the administration is systematically wiping out full-time union work, called “official time,” across the rest of the government.

The Washington Post reported this month that some current and former administration officials viewed the contract as a reward to the head of the Border Patrol union, a vocal supporter of Trump’s border policies.

Trump’s predecessors used uneven rhetoric about government employees. Barack Obama promised to “make government cool again” and attract millennials. But he offended some as he tried to sell his health-care plan by assuring Americans that “I don’t want government bureaucrats meddling in your health care.”

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the government’s national security apparatus ballooned under George W. Bush, with entire new agencies born. His administration also tried to weaken employee unions, re­imagining a merit-based personnel system for the Navy, but the project petered out.

Bill Clinton, declaring that “the era of big government is over,” oversaw the largest reduction in the size of the workforce in modern history, a shift still felt today in personnel offices and other areas.

Trump’s fight with federal employee unions is about to get real

Trump allies say his commitment to downsizing government does not translate to an antipathy toward its employees.

“The president and conservatives in general have a goal to shrink the workforce, which is too large and too bloated,” said Wesley Denton, former acting chief of staff at the White House budget office, “but that doesn’t dim his affection and appreciation for those who are doing their jobs.”

Denton and other conservatives describe Trump’s battle with the unions that represent the majority of the workforce as one seeking to enable high performers to flourish while weeding out poor performers.

“Trump is beating the union bosses and telling them, ‘You can’t protect bad apples who don’t show up for work,’ ” anti-tax activist Grover Norquist said.

Norquist called Trump’s decision to close the government Tuesday to give employees the day off with pay — against the advice of personnel agency officials who said a midweek Dec. 24 holiday would set a costly precedent — a reward to “the vast center that’s just doing their jobs.”

“He’s speaking to the middle-income, working-class people in the government.”

Trump, meanwhile, has personally targeted other employees who have been caught up in the investigations surrounding his presidency.

There was the bashing of FBI agents involved in the Russia inquiry — some by name — whom Trump called “scum” a few weeks ago at a campaign rally in Hershey, Pa. He was condemning them over the rationale for wiretapping a former campaign adviser.

There was the forecast he turned political in September as he dug in on groundless claims of a hurricane threat to Alabama and then pressed top aides, including his commerce secretary, to intervene with a federal scientific agency and rebuke the forecasters who contradicted him.

There was the castigating of the anonymous whistleblower and career officials who testified publicly in the impeachment investigation as “rogue bureaucrats of the deep state” for their narrative of his campaign to press Ukraine for political favors.

Trump this fall did praise the work of intelligence agents as he announced the death in October of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Government-wide surveys suggest that while federal workers’ morale has taken a nosedive in some agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the Agriculture, Education and State departments, it has risen at others, including Veterans Affairs and the Defense Department.

The employees’ political views largely mirror the nationwide electorate. Close to 450,000 federal workers live in the 12 traditional swing states, from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin to Colorado, that could help decide the election.

As for what federal employees can expect from the Trump administration in 2020, “there isn’t so much a strategy,” said Donald Kettl, a public affairs professor at the University of Texas at Austin, “as there is a strategy that changes depending on how’s he’s feeling on any given day.”