Federal agencies are still trying to size up the effect of one of President Donald Trump's broadest executive orders: a freeze that bans all new hires excluding military personnel.
Last week, within less than 72 hours of taking office, Trump initiated a freeze on new positions for all "federal civilian employees to be applied across the board in the executive branch." The freeze was immediate and "excluded those positions that [are] necessary to meet national security or public safety responsibilities."
It was the first of several indications that Trump meant to keep to his promise to root out what he sees as "waste, fraud and abuse" in federal spending.
It's hard to overlook the irony, however. A phrase which for decades defined the responsibilities of the Office of Inspector General and the General Accounting Office has become the new administration's rallying call, inferring for many of Trump's supporters that unneeded, if not illicit, use of funds was a rampant problem that could only be stopped by removing autonomy from hiring and publishing practices.
For many federal agencies (and those relying on their services), however, the hiring freeze is troubling. Just how does one define what is necessary and what is excessive to the daily operations of the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Education, Energy, or Health and Human Services?
For example, does the exemption for medical personnel cover the new hires needed by the Federal Drug Administration? Some 1,500 new medication approvals are expected in 2017. And that number doesn't take into account any backlogs that would have been handled by new staff.
And what about Department of Agriculture staff who field calls and handle lab tests related to food-borne illness outbreaks?
According to Food Safety News, which obtained a copy of an email sent to employees of the Food Safety Inspection Service, the freeze will likely slow down lab testing at FSIS by a least a month "dependent on staffing key vacancies."
And what about USDA lab technicians who are working to corner the research on declining bee populations and, by extension, ensure food and crop safety in the country's farms? They, too, are unlikely to win preferential consideration.
Given Trump's focus on border security, it seems logical that federal rangers -- the eyes and ears in the country's 294,300-square-mile, federally-protected public lands -- would be considered vital security personnel. Federal forest lands hem in much of the country's borders with Mexico and Canada. Surely the rangers who patrol vulnerable areas, as well as promote revenue-producing tourism, would be a priority.
But as Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-Va.) noted, U.S. park staffing is frozen as well. "[For] lawmakers who think this only affects people inside the [Captal] Beltway, think again," Connoll said.
Rachel Greszler, a senior policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation, defended the freeze, saying the president's action would allow him to "evaluate things and see where the waste and inefficiencies are" in federal agencies.
But according to the president's memorandum, that isn't necessarily the purpose of the freeze. The administration says it intends to implement "a long-term plan to reduce the size of the federal government's workforce through attrition." And the hiring freeze, which is to last until the plan is implemented in the next 90 days, is meant as a preliminary step to that downsizing.
"There’s real need for change in the federal government, and this is not the kind of change that’s constructive,” Max Stier told the Washington Post in interview. Stier is the president and chief executive of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.
He pointed out that by freezing hiring, the government risks exacerbating the problem. The majority of federal workers are now over the age of 60, Stier said. The attrition plan that Trump is talking about is liable to have long-term impacts on a skilled federal workforce.
That's a concern in agencies like the Department of Veterans Affairs, where preferential hiring of veterans ensure that offices are staffed by those most familiar with veterans' needs. Initial statements by the administration's press secretary, Sean Spicer, led veterans to think their medical coverage would be affected by the freeze. On Friday, the VA's Acting Secretary Robert D. Snyder corrected that, outlining a list of positions that would be exempted from the hiring ban.
Still, with nearly a third of the federal workforce made up of veterans, attrition may be a risky prospect for a new administration bent on showing it has the voters' backs. Veterans were by far Trump's largest voter bloc. Will a leaner federal government and fewer government jobs for those who served be what his voters had in mind? The next 90 days may tell.
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.