Two weeks into the Trump presidency, the collective blood pressure of tens of thousands of federal civilian employees is soaring. From the State Department to environmental agencies, many federal workers are resisting Trump policies and preparing for deep cuts to their ranks.
Yet while there may be rebellious fires burning inside the Trump fortress, many of his supporters outside are pleased the new president is striking fear inside the bureaucracy. Trump campaigned on reducing the federal workforce, and his base expects him not only to fulfill that promise but to reorient the government to serve a conservative agenda.
“The visceral response (of employees) is to be expected,” said Robert S. Graham, an entrepreneur and former two-term chair of the Republican Party in Arizona. “It happened in past administrations, and it is happening now.”
Graham said Trump was right to order an immediate hiring freeze in federal agencies, other than those involved with public safety and security. “Right now it is a runaway train,” Graham said about the federal bureaucracy. “You can see why he would want to put the brakes on everything.”
The U.S. government employed 2.1 million civilian employees as of 2016, a number that increased 6.5 percent during the Obama administration. Yet what has really increased is the number of contract employees doing federal work. Those total about 3.7 million, a number that could soon go up again, in spite of – or because of – the federal hiring freeze.
Several of Trump’s supporters have called for drastic cuts in federal agencies, although not the Pentagon, the largest U.S. bureaucracy. Myron Ebell, the former head of Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency transition team, has called for cutting the number of EPA employees, currently around 15,000, by one half to two thirds. Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker, has warned Trump that many federal employees are Hillary Clinton supporters determined to undermine his agenda. “There won’t be any real cooperation until we change federal law so we can fire them,” he told The New York Times.
There are rules you must conform with. If you can’t support that, then obviously federal employment is the wrong place for you.
Deborah Tamargo, chair of Hillsborough County Republican Committee in Tampa, Florida.
Federal employees are pushing back on several fronts. They are leaking information about Trump transition team members deemed hostile to environmental protection. They are participating in protest Twitter accounts, such as @ungaggedEPA and @AltUSNatParkSer. At the State Department, nearly 1,000 employees have signed a memo dissenting from Trump’s executive order limiting travel to the U.S. by refugees and people from seven Muslim countries.
Trump’s supporters are agitated that some federal employees would rebel like they have. “There are rules you must conform with,” said Deborah Tamargo, chair of Hillsborough County Republican Committee in Tampa, Florida. “If you can’t support that, then obviously federal employment is the wrong place for you, and should go somewhere else.”
Tamargo said she has sorority friends who are federal employees, worried about their future. But Tamargo said the issue isn’t about employees, but efficient government. She said she supports the concept of “zero-based budgeting” – where federal agencies must make a case to Congress to bring their budget up from zero. “If a program doesn’t work, we should eliminate it,” she said. “That eliminates the deadwood.”
Supporters of federal employees say such rhetoric ignores the essential services provided by workers such as occupational safety inspectors, air traffic controllers and national parks rangers leading school tours. The federal hiring freeze could end up hitting the National Park Service especially hard, since it may not be able to staff for peak crowds in the summer, according to Jim Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
Jonathan B. Jarvis, who recently retired as National Park Service director, said that he’s heard of park service employees receiving oral directives not to talk about politics, in any form. Jarvis said such directives have become “deeply confusing” to parks service personnel, unsure what might cross the line.
“How can you be a manager of the Statue of Liberty, and not talk about immigration?” said Jarvis. “If you are managing Manzanar in California (one of the remote camps where Japanese families were detained during World War II) how can you talk about that without talking about racial profiling in a time at war?”
How can you be a manager of the Statue of Liberty, and not talk about immigration?
Jonathan B. Jarvis, recently retired as National Park Service director
Previous presidents have called for deep cuts in the federal bureaucracy, only to be set back by civil service rules, union opposition and their own priorities. President George W. Bush was the most recent president to freeze federal employment upon entering the White House. He left it with roughly the same number of civilian federal employees as when he was inaugurated in 2001.
Graham, the Arizona businessman, said the new president will likely grow frustrated dealing with the federal bureaucracy after working in the corporate world his whole career. Yet he and other Trump supporters think he has a chance to undertake a federal streamlining that has eluded previous presidents, partly because of GOP control of both houses in Congress and a public that isn’t very sympathetic to federal employees.
“I don’t think these government workers have a platform to stand on,” said Glenn McCall, the GOP national committeeman from South Carolina.
McCall said that many of his friends in South Carolina have lost jobs because of corporate streamlining and the demands of businesses to be more competitive. “I think people understand that,” said McCall. “It happens every day in the corporate world.”
Katie Glueck contributed to this story.
Stuart Leavenworth: @sleavenworth