Overshadowed executive order sets stage for threatened federal programs, workforce
Welcome to Trumpland — a place of endangered domestic programs and a threatened federal workforce.
“Hard power” is Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney’s description of President Trump’s proposed budget.
Hardhearted is another.
The budget Trump released Thursday brings more anxiety to federal employees who already are nervous about a president who considers so many of them expendable. While that was clear from his spending blueprint, another document that received less attention could have a more lasting imprint.
No one expects Trump’s budget to be implemented as written, because Congress will change it. Less-known and less tamper-proof — but longer-lasting — is Trump’s executive order, released three days earlier, outlining a “Comprehensive Plan for Reorganizing the Executive Branch.”
The executive order and the budget proposal, plus an earlier hiring freeze memorandum, present a management strategy designed to jettison agencies, oust programs, slow hiring and dump employees.
Former presidents gave their reorganization initiatives optimistic names like Bill Clinton’s “Reinventing Government.” The Trump administration approach reflects his darker view: the “deconstruction of the administrative state” in the words of top aide Stephen K. Bannon.
“This is really nothing like previous reorganization efforts, because it’s focused squarely on reducing the size of government,” said Donald F. Kettl, a University of Maryland public policy professor.
That’s clear from the first section of the executive order, which defines its purpose. The way “to improve the efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability of the executive branch,” it says, is through a reorganization that would “eliminate unnecessary agencies … components of agencies, and agency programs.”
Eliminating agencies and programs means eliminating federal employees. Layoffs, known as reductions in force or RIFs in Washington lingo, would be as inevitable as a tall tale from a Trump tweet.
His budget plan emphasizes the implications for the federal workforce by saying the reorganization executive order and his January hiring freeze memorandum “are complementary and (agency) plans should reflect both Presidential actions.”
But deconstruction is not the only way to look at Trump’s reorganization, according to Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan organization that studies government management.
“Right out of the gate, President Trump has called for a rethink of the way government functions,” he said. Stier is encouraged by the order, “because it doesn’t put a finger on the scale … other than to say how can we do this better.”
Yes, the order speaks about “improvements in the organization and functioning of the executive branch.” But the three times it calls for eliminating agencies, coupled with the budget plan that would kill 19 small ones and make major cuts to others, leaves no doubt about what Trump wants.
Critical services for the poor, the elderly and the environment would suffer or disappear.
J. David Cox Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees, urged the administration to include front-line employees in the review of government programs, with the hope of saving not just their jobs, but also their agencies’ missions.
“Whether it is the VA nurse at the bedside of a wounded warrior, the Border Patrol agent securing our homeland, or the EPA scientist working to keep our air and water safe and clean,” he said, “federal employees are eager to help make sure that every dollar spent produces the best possible outcome for our fellow citizens.”
Cox wants any review to examine government contractors, who “have insinuated themselves into every government agency, performing work at a cost to taxpayers that is often twice or three times higher than would be necessary if government employees were hired to do the jobs.”
Speaking of hiring, the management section of Trump’s budget plan calls for yet another attempt to improve the federal hiring process. The Obama administration made this a priority and took action, but the job is not complete.
“Despite years of efforts managers remain frustrated with hiring methodologies that do not consistently bring in top talent,” the budget document says.
While Trump’s spending blueprint is light on staffing specifics, the cuts it would require could not be secured just through attrition, as Trump discussed during the campaign. The current hiring freeze also will not be enough to achieve the profound reductions Trump envisions.
Mulvaney, who displayed a surprising lack of knowledge about the federal workforce during his confirmation hearing, left no doubt about layoffs with his parroted Trump comment that was particularly disdainful of federal employees: “You can’t drain the swamp and leave all the people in it.”
During a press briefing, he cited the Environmental Protection Agency as the swamp’s “first place that comes to mind.” It would be slashed the most, 31 percent, among the agencies allowed to live, resulting in the loss of 3,200 positions.
“I would expect that there would have to be reductions in forces at various agencies,” Mulvaney added.
In reply to Jim Acosta, a CNN reporter who asked if the budget is “hardhearted,” Mulvaney called it “as compassionate as you can get.”
Only in a Trump world of alternative facts.