WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump instituted a government-wide hiring freeze Monday, signing an executive order that he said would affect all employees “except for the military.”
Trump had pledged to halt government hiring as part of his campaign’s “Contract with the American Voter,” which he framed as part of a larger effort to “clean up corruption and special interest in Washington D.C.” That campaign plan, however, also included exemptions for public safety and public health.
Speaking to reporters Monday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said the hiring freeze aimed to send the message, “We’ve got to respect the American taxpayer.”
Some Americans are working two or three jobs, Spicer added, “and to see money get wasted” on jobs that are “duplicative is insulting to the hard work that they do to pay their taxes.”
The move brought sparked an immediate outcry from federal employee union officials and some public service advocates.
“There’s real need for change in the federal government and this is not the kind of change that’s constructive,” said Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, in an interview. “You don’t freeze into place what is already not what you want.”
Richard Thissen, president of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association noted that the federal workforce is now roughly 10 percent smaller than it was in 1967.
Thissen said the freeze “would undermine the efficiency of government operations by creating hiring backlogs and inadequate staffing levels, and it is unlikely to save any money,” and likely lead to the hiring of additional federal contractors.
The last two major, across-the-board freezes were instituted by Presidents Carter and Reagan, who imposed them after taking office. In 1982, the Government Accountability Office issued a report concluding that both freezes ended up costing more money than they saved, and were “not an effective means of controlling federal employment.”
Paul Light, New York University Paulette Goddard Professor of Public Service, said in an interview that the impact of the freeze may be overstated, since there could be broad exemptions and there are limits to how much Trump can accomplish on his own. Trump cannot overhaul the civil service system without legislation, Light said, and federal turnover is not rapid.
“Anyone who’s looking at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is looking in the wrong direction,” Light said. “The real action’s going to be on the Hill.”
But Stier said there are real deficiencies in the federal government already, and a freeze will just exacerbate them. The government spends nearly 80 percent of its $90 billion IT budget on operations and maintenance, and there are nearly three times as many employees over the age of 60 as under the age of 30.
“That’s not the workforce you want to freeze, you want to refresh it,” he said.
During the final weeks of the Obama administration, top officials at several government agencies went on a hiring spree in an effort to staff up before the expected hiring freeze hit. This prompted a pushback from congressional Republicans, who argued the federal officials should wait to bring on any additional employees until after Trump took the oath of office.
The White House did not immediately release details of the executive order, so it is unclear whether the freeze takes effect Monday or is retroactive. Reagan’s freeze was retroactive to Election Day, which was unsuccessfully challenged in court.
In an August 1981 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in National Treasury Employees Union v. Ronald Reagan, the court ruled that anyone who had been appointed after Election Day, but had not yet started work, were affected by the retroactive freeze because they had not actually become federal employees. It found that a small number of workers among the plaintiff group, however, had begun to perform official work functions and therefore could make a claim based on the standard civil service protections that federal employees hold.