President Trump vowed as a candidate to take a sledgehammer to the federal bureaucracy, put a workforce full of “waste, fraud and abuse” on notice and “cut so much, your head will spin.”
But the “across the board” hiring freeze he put in place Monday could be a more symbolic, less forceful first step toward shrinking government than the sweeping order it appears to be, federal personnel experts said Tuesday. In fact, the memorandum regarding the 2.1 million civilians in the federal workforce leaves plenty of room for exceptions.
Federal offices in many corners of government could continue to hire, as long as the job has — or can be construed to have — a national security or public safety mission. Individual Cabinet secretaries and agency heads have broad leeway to decide on exemptions.
And the hiring ban is scheduled to last 90 days, after which the Office of Management and Budget is slated to come up with a long-term plan to shrink the federal workforce through attrition.
A more permanent approach would still constitute a freeze of sorts but would resemble more of a selective slowdown, experts said.
“This is not an ironclad freeze,” said Jeffrey Neal, former personnel chief at the Department of Homeland Security and now a senior vice president at ICF International. “It’s sending a message to get everybody’s attention that they don’t want government to keep growing while they figure out how to reduce its size.”
Yet the language of the memorandum instituting the freeze is so vague that a day after Trump signed it, agency officials were scrambling to determine whether and how the move will affect them.
The biggest question — about which employees the freeze covers at the Department of Defense — seems to have been answered late Tuesday night. A Pentagon spokesman said the department had determined that the freeze, which does not apply to uniformed military personnel, does indeed include the 750,000 civilian workforce that supports the military.
“Regarding the question of whether the hiring freeze affects civilian personnel, the answer is yes,” said spokesman Johnny Michael in an email. “The presidential memorandum places a freeze on the hiring of federal civilian employees, and applies to all executive departments and agencies, including civilian employees within the DoD.”
Other blurry areas include whether agencies can continue to hire temporary employees such as seasonal rangers to help sustain big crowds at national parks during the high season.
The lack of clarity could cause havoc at agencies as they deliberate over whether they can hire for certain kinds of jobs, said Max Stier, president and chief executive of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service.
“At the end of the day, it’s going to be very hard to address all of the potential holes,” he said.
Trump’s directive applies to agencies regardless of whether their funding comes from fees or appropriations by Congress. It also tells agencies that they cannot backfill vacancies by increasing the number of outside contractors.
But it does not apply to the thousands of political appointees the new administration is likely to hire in the coming months to fill out its leadership teams. And Trump gives his agency heads broad latitude to implement the hiring ban, letting them decide when to grant exemptions for national security and public safety jobs. The Office of Personnel Management also can grant waivers for hires whose missions are not related to national security or public safety.
“If I’m an agency head, I’m going to interpret this very broadly,” said John Palguta, a retired senior executive at Merit Systems Protection Board and a longtime federal personnel expert.
“If I’m the newly confirmed head of the Department of Defense, I would say, ‘That’s what we do — we’re all about public safety and national security,’ ” Palguta said. “They could use the exception widely.”
There were also questions about whether the freeze affects the Department of Veterans Affairs, the second-largest federal agency, with 312,000 employees.
Those employees usually are considered “essential” in any shutdown of the federal government. But to many observers’ surprise, the agency appears to be covered by the freeze, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said at a media briefing Tuesday.
“Right now, the system’s broken,” Spicer said of VA, explaining that a halt to hiring is meant as a “pause,” in part until Trump’s nominee to lead the agency, David Shulkin, can settle into the job.
“And I think the VA in particular, if you look at the problems that have plagued people, hiring more people isn’t the answer,” Spicer said. “It’s hiring the right people, putting the procedures in place that ensure that our veterans — whether health care or mortgages or the other services that VA provides to those who have served our nation — get the services that they’ve earned.”
Shulkin has said that one of his top goals is to fill hundreds of vacancies of doctors and nurses.
But the biggest question revolves around who the freeze applies to at the Pentagon.
The Defense Department’s civilian workforce makes up about 35 percent of the government’s civil servants. These employees are a massive base of support for the military, in jobs that include budget analysts, procurement, logistics and acquisition specialists, administrative staff, researchers and hundreds of other positions. Trump has pledged to boost the size of the military, but broadly speaking, it is not clear whether that mandate will apply to civilians.
Even though the halt to hiring apparently applies to civilians, there is potentially a way for the agency to get around it by using the national security or public safety exemptions. That means that many, if not all, Pentagon civilians could be excluded from the freeze because their jobs help secure the nation, according to some interpretations.
Palguta pointed out that President Ronald Reagan’s freeze on federal hiring, enacted on his first day in office, eventually fell apart because agencies waived it for so many positions.
Palguta predicted that because of these loopholes, the freeze “is not going to cripple government.”
Missy Ryan contributed to this report.