If President Donald Trump is itching for a war with the federal workforce, consider his announcement Monday as a declaration: a federal hiring freeze, just three days into his administration.
Trump signed an executive order on Monday that will stop federal agencies from filling most of their vacancies. The new president had pledged to do so while on the campaign trail, describing the federal bureaucracy as part of the “swamp” he claims he will drain.
The freeze essentially means that federal workers who change jobs or retire will not be replaced, making it more difficult for agencies to carry out their basic duties.
Federal agencies may not fill any vacant positions that existed as of noon Sunday, “except in limited circumstances,” according to a memo sent out on Monday. The order carves out military personnel and any positions “necessary to meet national security or public safety responsibilities.” It also notes that agencies can’t hire contractors as a way to get around the freeze.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Monday that the decision was made to eliminate “wasted” money.
“We’ve got to respect the American taxpayer,” Spicer told reporters.
Trump and his surrogates have said for weeks that they intend to trim the federal workforce and roll back or altogether scrap long-held job protections for civil servants, raising alarms among federal employees. If they pursue those goals, the Trump administration will likely enjoy robust support from congressional Republicans, who have long complained that it’s too difficult to fire people.
Federal worker groups have braced for the freeze and quickly condemned it. The National Treasury Employees Union, which represents 150,000 workers, called it “harmful and counterproductive” and said it would lead to backlogs at critical agencies and worsen customer service.
“Many of our agencies are already experiencing severe staffing shortages as a result of budget cuts and sequestration.”
“Attrition is already taking a heavy toll at many federal agencies as employees depart and there is no replacement to take on the work,” said Tony Reardon, the union’s president. “Many of our agencies are already experiencing severe staffing shortages as a result of budget cuts and sequestration.”
In his Contract with the American Voter, Trump promised to implement a hiring freeze “to reduce the federal workforce through attrition (exempting military, public safety, and public health)” as soon as he took office. He cast the freeze as a necessary step toward rooting out special interests in the nation’s capital.
But federal workers are not the fat-cat swamp dwellers most people have in mind when they think of Washington corruption. Most of them earn middle-class wages and don’t even live in the Washington area ― they are scattered across the country working for dozens of different agencies. The state with the most federal workers is actually California, followed by Texas.
HuffPost readers: Are you a federal worker concerned about your agency under a Trump administration? Email us about it.
A freeze on hiring would affect local economies around the country, since the federal government is such a large employer. The government employed approximately 2.8 million people in December, according to the latest jobs report. Although that workforce sounds immense, it is not large by historical standards, and certainly not as a share of all civilian employment. While the number of contractors has ballooned, the number of direct federal employees right now is smaller than it was in the 1980s and most of the 1970s.
Representatives of federal workers dispute whether hiring freezes even have the intended effects. A Government Accountability Office audit from 1982 examined four previous hiring freezes and found that they were “ineffective,” failing to substantially reduce the workforce while also disrupting agencies. They also led to “decreased oversight” and “lost revenue.”
Joe Davidson, the longtime Washington Post columnist who covers the federal workforce, recently wrote that, “depending on the rationale, [Trump’s] freeze plan defies good reason or is simply bad policy.”