Donald Trump’s inauguration as the 45th president of the United States is still six weeks off. But Shannon McPeek-McDuff is already afraid.
“Nervous. Scared. It sure isn’t hopeful,” McPeek-McDuff, the president of Local 1336 of the American Federation of Government Employees, said of her mood. Her union represents 2,600 Social Security Administration employees in the Kansas City area. “It is a very scary time. I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Candidate Trump made many promises on the election trail. Chief among them were vows to curtail the flow of illegal immigrants from Mexico, to “win again” at trade deals and “drain the swamp” in Washington of special-interest cronyism.
In his Contract with the American Voter, the now president-elect also announced that his No. 2 priority, just behind a proposed constitutional amendment to impose term limits on members of Congress, was “a hiring freeze on all federal employees to reduce the federal workforce through attrition.” He wrote that the freeze would exempt military, public safety and public health employees.
It is a promise that has particular interest on both sides of the state line in Kansas City and up to Leavenworth, a region in which federal employees comprise some 28,000 workers, placing the federal government first among all area employers.
Some 15,000 of that number are members of the armed forces and Department of Defense, likely exempting them from proposed cuts. Trump, in fact, has called for eliminating the sequester on defense spending and increasing spending to boost troop levels, as well as ship and aircraft numbers.
But the other 13,000 employees work as civilians in 150 other area agencies or offices within departments that include commerce, treasury, transportation, labor, interior, energy, health and human services, justice, homeland security, education, housing and urban development, veterans affairs, the Environmental Protection Agency, the General Services Administration and others.
Campaigning in September, Trump said it would be possible to reduce the federal bureaucracy through “responsible workforce attrition — that is, when employees retire, they can be replaced by a smaller number of new employees.”
It’s a pitch that congressional Republicans have been making for years, most prominently through the budgets proposed by House Speaker Paul Ryan. In 2012, Ryan proposed cutting 10 percent of the federal workforce through attrition by replacing two of every three employees who leave or retire.
A loss of 10 percent of the civilian federal workforce in Kansas City would equal about 1,300 jobs.
Larry Hisle, the executive director and staff liaison of the Greater Kansas City Federal Executive Board, a group comprised of the the heads of the area’s 150 agencies, cautioned that it’s far too early to sound alarm bells.
As administrations change, so do priorities.
“Obviously, depending on what the new administration’s initiatives are, there obviously are going to be some areas that are going to be cut,” he said. “But there may be some areas that grow as well.”
He said that, at this point, he has not noted any of the heads of the area agencies voicing significant concerns.
“I mean, I’m sure there are people who are nervous,” Hisle said. “There are probably heads of some agencies thinking, well, will our dollars be cut drastically? That is probably running through their heads.”
But until the president-elect actually takes office on Jan. 20 and the 100-day clock begins to tick, he noted that agency leaders are so far taking a stance of “wait and see.”
Experience shows that what makes for a good campaign line does not always make for effective policy. It is hardly new in political campaigns to cast the federal government as both inefficient and thick with fat.
A series of “blueprint” reports rolled out this year by the conservative Heritage Foundation toes this line.
“The country cannot and should not sustain the current course of excessive spending and borrowing,” the foundation wrote in its 2016 report, Blueprint for Reform, A Comprehensive Policy Agenda for a New Administration in 2017. “Excessive spending has driven the growing debt and created an unsustainable budget.”
The report goes on to outline a series of budget cuts and extensive program eliminations in virtually every federal department.
But others argue that the image of a bloated federal government is vastly distorted.
Data from the Office of Personnel Management show that the civilian workforce, with some mild rises and falls, has remained relatively flat since the 1960s Kennedy administration.
The federal government employs about 2 million civilian employees. Looked at as a percentage of the United States population, the percentage of civilians working for the federal government has been steadily shrinking. In 1984, 0.88 percent of the population was employed as civilians by the federal government. Last year, in 2015, it was 0.63 percent.
“Keep in mind that we just came out of a pay freeze that ended in 2014, and a hiring freeze,” Hisle said of the freezes under Barack Obama from 2010 to 2014. “We’re a pretty lean government right now.”
The question of whether shrinking government makes it more efficient and saves money is oft debated.
The union, The American Federation of Government Employees, represents some 670,000 federal employees. Its policy director, Jacqueline Simon, argues that the notion of smaller government being more efficient and cheaper is false.
“It’s a lie. It’s based on a lie,” said Simon, citing the 2011 report, Bad Business: Billions of Taxpayer Dollars Wasted on Hiring Contractors, prepared by the nonpartisan watchdog group Project on Government Oversight.
The report examined contractor billing rates for government services. It found “the government pays billions more annually in taxpayer dollars to hire contractors than it would to hire federal employees to perform comparable services.”
“What almost always happens — no, not almost — what always happens,” Simon said, “is that when politicians make promises to reduce the federal workforce, they substitute a more expensive workforce.”
Beyond cutting by attrition, the prospect of privatization of some government functions also looms.
Former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, a Republican, is thought to be a leading contender to lead the massive Department of Veteran Affairs. Brown met with Trump at Trump Tower in November and indicated to reporters after his meeting the possibility of privatizing parts of the department, a move that the Obama administration has opposed.
“We’re going to have to outsource some of those cases to private vendors, obviously,” Brown said. “We’ve got to work with the Department of Defense so when that soon-to-be-veteran actually leaves the D.O.D., we know what his or her needs are. There’s a breakdown there.”
As a consequence of the Hatch Act, the 1939 law that prohibits federal employees from engaging in certain political activities, many federal employees tend to refrain from discussing political decisions or proposals with the press.
At the Kansas City VA Medical Center, Ahmad Batrash, the chief of staff, would go as far as to say that the VA currently is hiring for multiple positions. The health care market in Kansas City is competitive.
Any kind of hiring freeze would be damaging.
“It would have negative impact,” Batrash said. “No question about it. We feel like we are staffed at this level for a reason.”
A quick search of usajobs.gov, the job site advertising federal openings, showed dozens of openings at Kansas City area federal agencies, ranging from part-time mail clerks at the Department of the Treasury paying $12 to $16 per hour, to a financial analyst at the Small Business Administration paying between $100,000 and $140,000 a year, to physicians at the VA Medical Center with salaries ranging upward of $240,000.
At the VA, they need dermatologists, neurologists, a psychiatrist. They’re looking for ultrasound technicians, nurses and others.
“We never really ask for the want,” Batrash said in terms of hiring. “We only ask for the need.”
Freezing positions, Batrash said, would force the medical center to pick and choose between programs.
Emma Criswell, 64, had worked at the Kansas City VA Medical Center since 1974. This fall the licensed practical nurse retired after 42 years. She has two grown daughters, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
She has seen the effects of cuts and hiring freezes in the past.
“It hurts,” Criswell said. “It hurts the employees. More is required of them. You can’t really give the care you need to the patients…You give them care, but it’s not going to be to the point if you had another person there to help you. … The patient is going to suffer one way or the other.”
Meantime, an employee in Kansas City at the Social Security Administration sometimes wonders if certain cuts wouldn’t help — not in numbers, but with specific employees seen as shirking their duties.
The worker, having spent 15 years with the administration, asked not to be identified out of concern of violating the Hatch Act. Politically, the worker expressed no admiration for President-elect Trump.
That said, the employee notes that if Trump simply made it easier to get rid of dead weight, “get rid of the waste,” that would be a positive thing.
“We have a really, really huge union,” said the employee, who is in a managerial position. “So it is really hard for us to get rid of people. It’s hard to get people to work to their full capacity. I think there are a lot of positions that I don’t think are needed.
“Again, you’re seeing my perspective as a manager. The waste, the abuse I see. Of course, I would worry about those employees if they got laid off. But I do think there could be some reorganization — as long as it’s not me.”