The Trump administration on Wednesday scrapped plans to kill a U.S. Forest Service program that trains disadvantaged young people for rural jobs after a bipartisan outcry from Congress.
The decision came after weeks of heavy pressure from lawmakers from Montana to Kentucky, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). The Forest Service had planned to begin layoffs of 1,110 employees by September, believed to be the largest number of cuts to the federal workforce in a decade.
The offices of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, whose agencies oversee the 25 Job Corps Civilian Conservation Centers and dozens of others in urban areas, said in a joint statement that the administration is committed to making the program “better and stronger.”
“For the time being, USDA does not intend to transfer these centers to [the Labor Department] to allow management to determine a pathway that will maximize opportunity and results for students, minimize disruptions, and improve overall performance and integrity,” the statement said.
The administration “will conduct a robust organizational review to determine the appropriate course of action, keeping in mind the [Forest Service] mission, the students we serve, and the American taxpayers.”
The reversal, first reported by Politico, comes less than a month after Forest Service chief Vicki Christiansen told her staff in an anguished phone call that many of them would be laid off.
Nine Job Corps centers in Montana, Wisconsin, Arkansas, Virginia, Washington state, North Carolina, Oregon and Kentucky were scheduled to close, and an additional 16 were to be taken over by private companies or states.
Agriculture officials said at the time that that many of the centers operated by the Forest Service were low-performing, some with security problems, low enrollment and uncertain job prospects for graduates. Perdue said Job Corps was not a “core mission” of the Forest Service.
But the planned closures quickly ran headlong into political reality: Most were in Republican strongholds President Trump won in 2016.
While the president and his GOP allies on Capitol Hill have put a high premium on downsizing the federal government, lawmakers facing reelection campaigns next year were loath to sacrifice economic drivers back home, however small.
In a rare break with the administration, Republicans joined Democrats in fighting not just the shutdowns but the effort to hand over operations to private companies. The opponents included Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), whose timber-producing district on the Canadian border already is losing jobs, and Rep. H. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.), whose Southwest Virginia district in Appalachian coal country has yet to see the fruits of Trump’s promises to revive the industry.
With two centers in Kentucky on the closure list, McConnell wrote Perdue and Acosta a letter of protest, citing the loss to “distressed Kentucky counties with unemployment rates above the national average,” which “need more support, not less.”
In a separate letter signed by 51 Democrats and Republicans, lawmakers took issue with the administration’s claim that many of the centers announced for closure were poor performers.
Job Corps has its roots in the New Deal-era Civilian Conservation Corps, the popular work-relief program for unemployed, unmarried men that operated from 1933 to 1942. The current program dates to the Lyndon B. Johnson administration.
Many of the centers employ fewer than 100 people and train as many students each year. But in small-town America, they have an outsize economic presence.
In perhaps the clearest sign of GOP discontent, Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) issued a video on Twitter in recent weeks that showed him claiming victory for saving the center on the cut list in his state with a personal call to the president. Daines said Trump promised him the Anaconda Job Corps center would stay open.
The fate of the others dangled until Wednesday, with Agriculture officials saying only that they were reviewing public comments on their plan.
Daines’s fellow senator from Montana, Jon Tester, was the most vocal Democratic critic of the plan, introducing legislation to stop the closures from moving forward.
“Suddenly, without any real reason or justification, the President pulled the plug on one of the most successful initiatives in rural America and my office was flooded with stories and objections from Montanans,” Tester said in a statement Wednesday night.
Randy Erwin, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, which represents Job Corps employees, said Perdue and Acosta “were only beginning to see the outrage stemming from this misguided plan.”
“With this change, numerous rural, small-town communities across the country have been saved from devastation,” he said.