President-elect Donald Trump has indicated that under his administration, government will be smaller. He’s suggested a hiring freeze of federal employees through attrition, and his 5-point ethics plan includes a 5-year lobbying ban on all executive branch employees after they leave federal service.
That will surely leave a mark on the federal workforce, but federal unions, associations and experts say it’s largely unclear how a Trump presidency will impact workers’ pay and benefits. But they do see Trump’s business acumen and experience as a key factor in conversations on federal employee accountability and performance — conversations that began in Congress during the Obama administration and won’t likely go away in 2017.
“There will be an emphasis on just how do we better address poor performers in a quicker, more timely fashion while still ensuring some kind of fundamental fairness,” said Dan Blair, president and CEO of the National Academy of Public Administration.
Bill Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees union, said he anticipates that many familiar bills, particularly those impacting federal employees’ retirement benefits, official time and hiring and firing procedures, will be back on the table again in a Republican-controlled Congress.
“You’re going to see a much more receptive audience in the administration than you have seen with the Obama administration,” he said. “I do think that frees up those proponents in the House and possibly the Senate to move forward with those proposals on maybe a grander scale.”
Trump’s business experience may also run counter to recent pushes to give federal employees a bigger pay raise, Blair said.
“The prospect of large, across-the-board pay raises are very minimal,” he said. “Given who we have as the President-elect, coming in with a private sector mentality, I would think that would rank counter to everything he has stood for when it comes to rewarding performers, because across-the-board pay raises are just the opposite.”
Yet some federal unions and associations said they hope they can find common ground.
“We’re going to have to find opportunities to work with the incoming administration on issues,” Dougan said. “We’re not going to agree on all the issues. We’re probably going to have more disagreements than we have agreements. But when opportunities present themselves or issues arise that we can collaboratively work with the administration on solving problems or reaching good solutions, I’m hopeful that both labor and the administration will see value in doing that.”
Many in the federal community hope the new administration can pick off where the Obama administration left off on challenges like hiring reform.
“Whatever shape government is going to take or whatever size government is going to take, I would hope there would be interest in working on continuing the ability to attract and retain the best and brightest in federal government,” Dougan said. “We’ve made a lot of strides in doing that over the last several years. Those types of efforts are pretty much non-partisan. We can argue over the size of government, how many employees an agency is going to have on the rolls, but regardless of that the quality of those hires and being able to retain those folks … is in everybody’s interest.”
Dan Helfrich, federal government services leader with Deloitte, said he sees Trump’s business experience as a platform to bring in a variety of new talent.
“The idea of bringing on new perspectives into a bunch of missions that perhaps are ripe to be re-looked at … is super positive,” he said. “But that’s going to come from people of a variety of experiences, of which the private sector can and will and should be one of them.”
Blair said he could see the Trump administration embrace more market-based solutions to help agencies recruit and hire new talent.
“This new administration will want to come in and give a fresh look to a whole host of issues, and that includes the federal workforce,” he said. “The ways that we’ve addressed federal workforce issues in the past … dozen years will not be the way this administration will view it.”
The congressional picture
The debate over federal employee accountability, particularly among senior executives, has taken center stage this year, as a frustrated Congress has held several hearings and proposed legislative changes to address the federal firing process in some agencies.
Pundits suggested otherwise, but Senate control did not change hands during Tuesday’s election, meaning federal employees will see few changes with congressional oversight leadership.
Molly Reynolds, a governance studies fellow at the Brookings Institution, said Congress typically holds fewer oversight and investigative hearings under unified legislative and executive branches. Yet it’s still unclear just what kind of executive branch Trump will choose to operate — and what implications that could have for federal executives, she said.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), whose spot was thought to be in jeopardy, will hold on to his seat and likely the chairmanship of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. The committee oversees federal workforce and personnel issues and it will also hold several key nomination hearings for new political appointees, such as the new directors for the Office of Personnel Management and Office of Management and Budget.
Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) will likely continue to lead the Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs and Federal Management.
The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies will see some movement with its leadership, as the subcommittee’s chair, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), lost his seat to Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.).
Both the chairman, Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), and the ranking member, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), kept their seats and likely their leadership positions on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee will see few changes among its top leadership, as Reps. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) both held onto their seats.
Reps. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), the chairman and ranking member of the Government Operations Subcommittee, easily kept their seats.