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Trump takes aim at federal bureaucracy with new executive orders rolling back civil-service protections

President Trump signed three executive orders Friday aimed at overhauling the federal bureaucracy. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

President Trump moved Friday to roll back civil-service protections that federal employees have enjoyed for a generation, making it easier to fire poor performers, curtailing time employees can be paid for union work and directing agencies to negotiate tougher union contracts.

In three executive orders the president signed before the holiday weekend, Trump took his first significant steps toward fulfilling a campaign promise he made to overhaul a federal bureaucracy he told voters was awash in “waste, fraud and abuse.”

The changes have been championed by Republicans who have sought to rein in the size and reach of the federal bureaucracy of 2 million, which under Trump has been gradually shrinking through hiring freezes and unfilled vacancies.

The trio of executive orders — which can be undone by the next president — could have a much more dramatic impact. They immediately drew polarized reactions, with public employee unions casting them as an attack on civil servants and conservatives praising the overhaul as a win for accountability.

Office of Personnel Management Director Jeff T. H. Pon, and deputy director Michael Rigas explained their intentions for reforming the federal workforce. (Video: Office of Personnel Management)

The orders limit federal employees to spending no more than a quarter of their workday on “official time” — paid time to do union business, a benefit Congress approved for federal unions four decades ago. Administration officials said the change could save $100 million a year.

They require agencies to negotiate union contracts in less than a year. And they direct managers to move more aggressively to fire poor performers or employees involved in misconduct, limiting to one month a last-chance grace period for improvement that now can last up to 120 days. Agencies must also disclose details about an employee’s record to other federal offices considering hiring someone who has been fired or disciplined.

The changes also upend a long tradition of basing layoffs on seniority. Agencies can now take performance into consideration, as well.

The orders also require agencies to begin charging unions for space in federal buildings they now use for free.

White House officials said their goal is to make the federal workforce more efficient and responsive to the public and to improve morale for employees who play by the rules.

In a briefing with reporters, Andrew Bremberg, the White House director of the Domestic Policy Council, said surveys of federal employees have repeatedly found that few trust their managers to adequately address poor performers.

“These executive orders make it easier for agencies to remove poor-performing employees and ensure that taxpayer dollars are more efficiently used,” Bremberg said. The president, he noted, called on Congress during his State of the Union address “to empower every Cabinet secretary with the authority to reward good workers and to remove those that undermine the public trust or fail the American people.”

Public employee unions said that Trump’s orders amounted to an attack on federal workers and that they were contemplating legal action to halt them.

“President Trump is attempting to silence the voice of veterans, law enforcement officers, and other frontline federal workers through a series of executive orders intended to strip federal employees of their decades-old right to representation at the worksite,” the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employee union, said in a statement.

How the Trump era is changing the federal bureaucracy

For their part, conservatives praised the changes as long overdue — particularly the order that will limit how much paid time federal employees can spend doing union work on the job.

“There is nothing more galling to limited government advocates than public employee unions being largely subsidized by taxpayer dollars while using their dues payments to support politicians in favor of expanding government,” Rick Manning, who served on Trump’s transition team and leads the advocacy group Americans for Limited Government, said in a statement.

Trump has repeatedly referred to federal workers as part of the Washington “swamp” he has promised to drain. But he did not publicly champion the executive orders Friday, signing them behind closed doors. The details were released to reporters late in the afternoon before the holiday weekend.

The new orders expand on a policy Congress enacted last year that made it easier for the Department of Veterans Affairs to fire poor performers or employees involved in misconduct, as well as a tough new union contract imposed by management this year at the Department of Education.

Civil-service experts said there is widespread consensus across the political spectrum on the need to overhaul the federal civil service. But they noted that Trump’s orders build on an effort conservatives have used in Indiana, Wisconsin and other states to weaken public employee unions.

“It’s very clear this is part of a broad strategy to undermine the power and position of federal unions,” said Donald F. Kettl, a public affairs professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

Still, some experts noted that Friday’s orders will not immediately ban unions from the federal workplace and could be reversed by the next administration absent congressional action, which is viewed as unlikely.

Some of the changes Trump ordered could be slow to implement. The amount of time federal employees are paid for “official time” must be negotiated through collective bargaining, and that change and others could hinge on agencies reopening existing contracts with rank-and-file employees or renegotiating new ones, experts said.

“There are laws that govern all of these things they are trying to do,” said Jeffrey Neal, former personnel chief at the Department of Homeland Security and now a senior vice president at the consulting firm ICF. “There’s only so much you can do when Congress hasn’t changed the law.”

Nevertheless, the public employee unions sounded the alarm.

The National Treasury Employees Union, the second-largest federal labor organization, said the orders amount to an “assault on federal employees, the nation’s civil service laws and federal unions.”

“This would begin the process of dismantling the merit system that governs our civil service,” the NTEU said in a statement.

That message was echoed by Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill, who said the orders will hurt federal workers and government services.

“The Trump Administration’s so-called ‘reforms’ will harm middle class workers who dedicate their lives to public service, impair our ability to recruit and retain the best and brightest, and degrade the services that our government delivers to the American people every single day,” Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.), the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said in a statement.

Another significant impact Trump’s move could have is on the ability of agencies to fire employees.

A tiny fraction of federal employees are fired for misconduct or poor performance each year, in part because federal workers have strong appeal rights. Even those who have committed felonies can sometimes stay on the job, administration officials said Friday.

One of Friday’s orders directs managers to move faster to discipline workers and to report such information to other agencies, a practice that’s now hidden from other prospective federal employers.

However, agencies still have considerable flexibility to decide on penalties for misconduct.

Joe Davidson contributed to this report.