Trump Targets Federal Workers in Executive Orders Curbing Protections

Posted May 25, 2018 9:17 p.m. EDT

Seizing on a longtime ambition of many Republicans, President Donald Trump on Friday overhauled rules affecting at least 2 million federal workers, making it easier to fire them and rolling back the workplace role of their unions.

Trump, furthering a goal cited in his State of the Union address this year, signed a series of executive orders affecting disciplinary procedures and contract negotiations and limiting the conduct of union business on government time.

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.”

Past administrations of both parties have argued that Civil Service rules are in need of modernization, but Trump zeroed in on aspects that create sharp partisan divisions. And the action follows growing acrimony between his supporters and the federal bureaucracy that they portray as the deep state.

Unions representing government workers were quick to denounce the actions. “This is more than union busting — it’s democracy busting,” J. David Cox Sr., national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employee union, said in a statement. “These executive orders are a direct assault on the legal rights and protections that Congress has specifically guaranteed.”

The executive orders come after a series of prominent Republican victories against public employee unions in recent years at the state level and a rollback of Obama-era policies favorable to labor at the federal level.

In the coming weeks, the Supreme Court will rule on a case, propelled by years of conservative philanthropy, that could end mandatory fees for public-sector unions in more than 20 states, dealing a body blow to union coffers.

The Trump administration portrayed its new rules as a needed remedy to make a sclerotic workforce more efficient and responsive, but Newt Gingrich, who has been an informal adviser to the White House on Civil Service issues, has given a different explanation in the past.

In an interview last year, when the administration was considering action, Gingrich, a former House speaker, said 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?”

Federal employees’ unions have typically been active on behalf of Democratic presidential nominees. Cox’s union announced its endorsement of Clinton in the 2016 campaign almost a year before the general election and had previously endorsed Barack Obama.

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 frequently took six months to a year to dismiss a poorly performing employee, followed by an appeals period averaging eight months.

To streamline the process, the official said, the executive order will give poor performers only 30 days to demonstrate improvement, rather than the current limit of up to 120 days, depending on the agency.

The official said the administration would also make performance a more important factor than seniority when agencies undertake layoffs.

The second executive order directs federal agencies to renegotiate contracts with unions representing government employees so as to reduce waste. The anonymous administration official expressed hope that, for example, agencies could stop having to pay expenses on 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 administration said it would also post union contracts online so Americans could review its efforts to negotiate better deals with government workers.

The third order aims to cut down on “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. (An analogous concept exists for private-sector unions.) The order limits official time to 25 percent of their hours during the year.

Administration officials said a subset of federal employees had been able to spend as much as 100 percent of their duty hours on union business, and estimated savings of at least $100 million a year once the order is fully in effect.

Bremberg, the White House domestic policy official, said the actions 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.”

The executive order related to firing was an effort to expand on legislation that Congress enacted last year aimed at the Department of Veterans Affairs, which became embroiled in a scandal in 2014 over the long waits that veterans were enduring for health care.

According to data collected by the American Federation of Government Employees, more than 1,600 workers have been removed under the provisions of the law passed last year, called the Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act. Among those removed were over 200 housekeeping aides, nearly 150 nursing assistants and nearly 100 food-service workers — representing three of the top four positions with the most removals.

Donald F. Kettl, a professor of public policy at the University of Texas at Austin who is based in Washington, said the number of low-level employees removed suggested the department was not using the legislation to make structural reforms.

“You need to dramatically improve the ability to hire the employees you need,” he said.

“It makes for a great message,” he added, “but is it really going to solve the problem?” Conservatives were quick to voice support for the measures. “Today’s announcement shows a move toward accountability for poor performers and unions while increasing workplace equity for all the dedicated and hardworking government employees who have had to pick up the slack for far too long,” said Kent Lassman, president and chief executive of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market advocacy group.

But Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said in a statement that if the administration were truly interested in restoring public trust in the federal government, it should rein in the excesses of some of its senior appointees, not politicize the Civil Service.

“Instead of trying to erode the rights of federal employees and whistleblowers, the administration should focus on the abuses of Cabinet officials taking charter and first-class flights and buying $31,000 dining sets and $43,000 soundproof booths,” Van Hollen said.

Union officials questioned the administration’s use of executive action when Congress had previously addressed the issue through legislation, but administration officials said they were on firm legal ground. They conceded only that legislation was preferable because executive orders can be easily undone by a future president, and because legislation can have potentially broader reach.