Business

Trump Curbs Protections for Federal Workers

Posted May 25, 2018 7:28 p.m. EDT

President Donald Trump on Friday signed a series of executive orders making it easier to fire federal government workers and to curb the workplace role of unions that represent them.

Andrew Bremberg, the head of the White House Domestic Policy Council, said the president was “fulfilling his promise to promote more efficient government by reforming our Civil Service rules.”

But the push also reflects conservatives’ long-running suspicion of the federal bureaucracy, one reflected in pronouncements by the president’s advisers. Shortly after Trump took office, Stephen K. Bannon, then his chief strategist, called for “the deconstruction of the administrative state.”

Unions representing government workers were quick to denounce the actions, calling them an “assault on democracy,” in the words of the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employee union, which represents 700,000 workers.

Experts on the Civil Service said the moves represented the next stage of an effort that Republican politicians and conservative activists had led in states like Wisconsin and Michigan throughout this decade.

“This is very clearly an administration trying to do all it can to weaken the role of public employee unions as part of a far broader strategy that in many ways has been bubbling up from the states to turn the Civil Service into at-will employment,” said Donald F. Kettl, a professor of public policy at the University of Texas at Austin, who is based in Washington. “For many people involved in this debate from administration, that is the ultimate goal.”

Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker who has been an informal adviser to the White House on Civil Service issues, said in an interview last year, when the administration was considering action, that a major impetus was the federal bureaucracy’s ideological opposition to the Trump agenda.

“When you learned that 97 percent of Justice Department donations went to Hillary Clinton, 99 percent of State Department donations went to Hillary, there are some reasons to believe a substantial number of people don’t want Trump to succeed,” Gingrich said. “Should the elected president of the United States have the ability to control the bureaucracy that actively opposed him?”

Trump signed three executive orders. The first makes it easier to fire and discipline federal employees, which a senior administration official, who declined to be named on a call with reporters, argued had become a much too lengthy and difficult process. The administration said it could take six months to a year to dismiss an employee for poor performance, followed by an average of eight months to work through appeals.

To streamline the process, the official said, the executive order will reduce the period in which poor performers must demonstrate improvement to 30 days, from as many as 120 days.

The second executive order directs federal agencies to renegotiate contracts with unions representing government employees to reduce waste. The administration official expressed hope that, for example, agencies could stop having to pay expenses of both sides when unions undertake appeals on behalf of fired workers.

Richard Loeb, a senior policy counsel for the American Federation of Government Employees, said appeals were typically handled by union lawyers not paid by the government.

The third order aims to cut down on what is known as “official time,” in which government workers who have roles in the union, like helping colleagues file grievances, are allowed to perform those roles during normal working hours for which they draw their usual salary. The order limits official time to 25 percent of their hours during the year.

Bremberg, the White House domestic policy official, said the moves would make good on the president’s call to “empower every Cabinet secretary with the authority to reward good workers and remove those that undermine the public trust or fail the American people.”

But Kettl of the University of Texas said such moves were not a panacea for ensuring efficient government.

“There is nothing to suggest that firing people is going to solve the basic underlying problem, which is a matter of trying to line up capacities to do the job you’re trying to do,” he said. “In particular, you need to dramatically improve the ability to hire the employees you need.”