How the Trump Era Is Changing the Federal Bureaucracy

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This post was originally published on The Straits Times.

WASHINGTON – Nearly a year into his takeover of Washington, President Donald Trump has made a significant down payment on his campaign pledge to shrink the federal bureaucracy, a shift long sought by conservatives that could eventually bring the workforce down to levels not seen in decades.

By the end of September, all Cabinet agencies except Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs and Interior had fewer permanent staff than when Trump took office in January – with most shedding many hundreds of employees, according to an analysis of federal personnel data by The Washington Post.

The diminishing federal footprint comes after Trump promised in last year’s campaign to “cut so much your head will spin”, and it reverses a boost in hiring during the Obama era.

The falloff has been driven by an exodus of civil servants, a diminished corps of political appointees and an effective hiring freeze.

Even though Congress did not pass a new budget in his first year, the drastic spending cuts Trump laid out in the spring – which would slash more than 30 per cent of funding at some agencies – also has triggered a spending slowdown, according to officials at multiple departments.

The White House is now warning agencies to brace for even deeper cuts in the 2019 budget it will announce early next year (2018), part of an effort to lower the federal deficit to pay for the new tax law, according to officials briefed on the budgets for their agencies. One possible casualty: a pay raise that federal employees historically have received when the economy is humming.

The administration’s effort so far to reshape the workforce of nearly two million civil servants that serves as the backbone of the government already has provoked a contentious culture shift.

Federal workers fret their jobs could be zeroed out amid buyouts and early retirement offers that already have prompted hundreds of their colleagues to leave, according to interviews with three dozen employees across the government.

Many have chafed as supervisors lay down new rules they say are aimed at holding poor performers and problem workers to account.

A hiring freeze technically lifted in the spring has been kept in practice at most agencies, hollowing out many offices.

And the slow pace of political appointments has left a number of departments with a leadership vacuum in their upper ranks.

“Morale has never been lower,” said Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents 150,000 federal workers at more than 30 agencies.

“Government is making itself a lot less attractive as an employer.”

Administration officials said Trump has actually improved employee morale, citing an annual survey of federal workers taken in the spring that showed a slight uptick across most agencies.

They said they are streamlining the government to make it leaner and more effective.

In a statement, White House spokesman Raj Shah said Trump “is committed to streamlining government for the 21st century, reducing bloat, duplication and waste, and focusing resources on key priorities like public safety and protecting our nation’s homeland.”

Conservatives who have long pushed for smaller government are cheered by the developments.

“This is going very well,” said anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, who famously once quipped that he wanted to shrink government small enough so he could “drown it in the bathtub.”

“Slow and steady – for all the bluster, this is how you downsize government without engendering blowback,” Norquist added.

And some civil servants said they welcome the focus on rooting out waste and holding federal workers to high standards.

“Oftentimes we run on autopilot and continue to fund programmes that don’t produce the results that were intended,” said Stephanie Valentine, a programme analyst at the Education Department.

“You can’t keep blindly spending because that’s what we’ve always done.”

Trump already has begun to reverse the growth of the Obama era, when the government added a total of 188,000 permanent employees, according to Office of Personnel Management (OPM) data.

By the end of September, the federal government had 1.94 million permanent workers, down nearly 16,000 overall since the beginning of the year, according to the most recent OPM data.

In the first nine months of 2009, Obama’s first year in office, the government added 68,000 permanent employees, growing to 1.84 million.

The last time federal employment dropped during a president’s first year, Bill Clinton was in the White House.

The relatively small net decrease under Trump so far masks what has been a substantial drop-off in staffing at certain agencies.

One of the biggest reductions has been at the Bureau of Prisons, which lost 2,320 permanent workers at a time when the Justice Department plans to return to using private prisons to house some federal inmates.

(A spokesman said the staffing decline was largely due to attrition and hiring delays.)

The Census Bureau, which has not received its full budget request from Congress for multiple years, fell by more than 1,000 employees.

The Environmental Protection Agency, where Administrator Scott Pruitt has moved quickly to reverse a generation of environmental protections and rules, was down 508 employees.

The shrinking federal workforce could end up undercutting some of Trump’s priorities. Employment within the Defense Department, which Trump has promised to beef up, dropped by 1 per cent, or 7,811 civilian workers across all branches of the military.

And the Internal Revenue Service, which is charged with the complex task of implementing Trump’s tax overhaul plan, lost 6,801 permanent staffers in the first nine months of this year, a drop of nearly 9 per cent, personnel data shows.

There are signs that Trump’s polarising presidency has helped drive more civil servants to the exits this year – voluntary departures that have contributed to the shrinking workforce.

During the first six months of the administration, 71,285 career employees quit or retired. That’s up from 50,000 who left during the same period in 2009, according to the most recent OPM data.

Among them is Noah Kunin, the former infrastructure director for 18F, the high-profile office created in the General Services Administration in 2014 to boost the government’s digital services.

Kunin said he lost staff who didn’t want to work for the new administration – and then was unable to replace them because of the early hiring freeze. He said he grew frustrated with what he called a slow start by the White House on bringing private-sector solutions to the government.

“I was involved in several major initiatives, and they were all stalled,” he recalled.

When he heard former FBI director James Comey tell Congress in June that Trump had asked him for his personal loyalty, Kunin said his red line was crossed.

Now working in Minneapolis as a software consultant, Kunin says the decision was “the most personal choice I’ve ever made: to stay engaged or leave”.

In some agencies, the number of people leaving has been crippling, according to former officials. At the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a wave of recent retirements has depleted the managerial staff at the enforcement agency’s 70 field offices, said Jordan Barab, who was a top OSHA official in the Obama administration.

In all, the agency shed 119 permanent workers by the end of September, a six-per-cent drop, personnel data show.”It’s starting to create major problems,” Barab said.

Enforcement actions must be reviewed by supervisors in multiple offices, he said, and if too many months pass, they can be thrown out.

“You can’t run an enforcement agency with no managers.”

A spokesman for the Labor Department declined to comment on the current number of OSHA managers but said that new inspectors have been hired in recent months, helping increase the number of safety and health inspections in 2017 – the first such boost in five years.

Across the government, roughly a third of workers who were hired in 2015 will be eligible to retire by 2020, according to the Government Accountability Office. But one of the best pipelines for getting young talent into the government has languished this year.

The Presidential Management Fellowship, a prestigious internship for top graduate students, has been unable to place many recruits because of a lingering hiring freeze at many agencies, according to half a dozen current fellows.

Meanwhile, other federal workers are in limbo because their jobs could cease to exist. That’s the precarious state right now of the tiny Chemical Safety Board, one of 19 small agencies Trump has marked for elimination.

The $11 million office investigates the causes of major chemical accidents and makes recommendations for safety improvements. In early December, a White House budget official told Chairwoman Vanessa Allen Sutherland that because the deficit has grown, the safety board must do its part and prepare to shut down, she said.

So far, no members of Congress have called for the board to be eliminated. But Sutherland is still busy bolstering the spirits of her 43 employees while formulating a shutdown plan. “I think I’ll definitely be there to turn out the light switches and take the Styrofoam cups with me,” she said.

Trump has also moved slowly in appointing the most important personnel in his government: the political leaders who are supposed to be the architects of his vision.

Of 624 key political positions requiring Senate confirmation, just 240 were confirmed as of Friday, according to data tracked by The Washington Post and the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.

A slow recruitment and vetting process, combined with drawn-out Senate confirmation schedules, have stalled the process. But the president has also expressed scepticism that such appointees are valuable.

“I tell my people, ‘Where you don’t need to fill slots, don’t fill them,’ ” Trump told conservative radio host Laura Ingraham in November.

In the meantime, many agencies have relied heavily on career employees in acting leadership roles. But their leadership can be tentative.

“Some careerists feel paralysed,” said Reginald Wells, who recently retired from the Social Security Administration as human resources chief.

“They don’t want to make a mistake.”

At the Labor Department, most top political posts still lack Trump appointees. For months, Secretary Alexander Acosta’s chief of staff doubled up jobs, serving as the department’s chief lawyer in an acting capacity until the Senate confirmed Trump’s nominee late this month.

The clock ran out for hundreds of acting officials in November when a little-known law called the Vacancies Act – designed to spur presidents to staff their government – kicked in, limiting them from making official decisions.

The law allows acting officials to serve for up to 300 days, at which point they must yield their authority to the agency head, unless the president has nominated someone to the job. An official action taken in violation of the law could face a legal challenge.

That forced a complicated workaround at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, where deputy director Thomas Homan has been serving as acting director while he awaits confirmation.

For now, to continue to act as ICE chief, he has been signing his name with the title “Deputy Director and Senior Official Performing the Duties of the Director.”

Federal contractors, including defense giant General Dynamics, have complained in earnings calls that leadership vacancies have slowed contract awards and delayed getting money authorised and appropriated.

“It’s very important to have senior leaders in place to make those long-term commitments,” said Alan Chvotkin, executive vice president of the Professional Services Council, a trade group that represents federal contractors.

For those inside the bureaucracy, a new Trump-era focus on accountability has meant working under greater oversight – and in some cases, fear of reprisals.

The administration has made its biggest push for employee accountability at Veterans Affairs, which was found in 2014 to have covered up excessive wait times for patients. In June, the president signed a law allowing the agency to fire or demote poor performers or employees accused of misconduct with 15 days’ notice.

In a Veterans Day speech at Arlington National Cemetery, Vice President Mike Pence drew applause from the crowd when he said VA had fired or suspended more than 1,500 employees for negligent behaviour.

This post was originally published on The Straits Times.