President 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 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 chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service, in an interview. “You don’t freeze into place what is already not what you want.”
Richard G. 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,” he said. However, he added, it is likely to lead to the hiring of additional federal contractors.
The last two major, across-the-board freezes were instituted by Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, who imposed them after taking office. In 1982, the General Accounting Office (now 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.”
President George W. Bush imposed a hiring freeze in 2001, but it affected only selected agencies. Under pressure from congressional Republicans, President Barack Obama in 2010 signed a pay freeze for federal workers, which ended up lasting three years.
House Government Reform and Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who still had not seen the executive order several hours after Trump signed it, said in an interview that he was “very supportive of freezing the net numbers of federal employees.” But he said some agencies, including the U.S. Secret Service and those dealing with cybersecurity operations, had to be able to fill open positions.
“The president is obviously working to fulfill a campaign promise. I concur with the goal,” he said. “In terms of the details on the execution, we would love to work with him.”
Backfilling these positions with federal contractors, he added, “would kind of miss the point.”
Rachel Greszler, a senior policy analyst with the Heritage Foundation, said it made sense for Trump to impose an initial freeze so he can “evaluate things and see where the waste and inefficiencies are” in the federal government.
“He needs that time so that more federal employees don’t come onto the rolls, because it’s extremely difficult to fire federal employees,” Greszler said.
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 age 60 as under age 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 that 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 those 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.
The court 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.
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Juliet Eilperin is The Washington Post’s senior national affairs correspondent. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.