The process used to lay off federal employees, better known by its acronym RIF, could be triggered if Trump’s budget is enacted into law — including a $54 billion hike in defense spending to be paid for by an equal cut in domestic spending at 18 other federal agencies. Trump has made reducing the size of the federal workforce a priority — but Congress, which will ultimately have to pass the budget for 2018, may not be so cooperative.
“I would expect that there would have to be reductions in forces at various agencies,” Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said at a briefing Wednesday in advance of the budget’s release. “I can’t imagine how you’d take some of these reductions and don’t have a reduction in the workforce, which is exactly what the president talked about.”
“We gave a great deal of flexibility to the secretaries and the agency directors. So how they manage that would be up to them on sort of a case-by-case basis,” he added.
But laying off federal workers requires going through a formal process that can be lengthy, expensive and disruptive to the workplace, experts say. And like the similarly complex process for firing them for misconduct, various legal and union rights may come into play.
Agencies under the budget ax typically look first to reducing travel, training and office equipment purchases. Instead of laying off employees, they tend to put them on temporary unpaid furloughs — time off without pay — as many did in 2013 in response to the budget cuts imposed by sequestration.
Jeffrey Neal, former personnel chief at the Department of Homeland Security and now a senior vice president at ICF International, said that the normal attrition in the federal workforce is unlikely to achieve the massive reductions that Trump proposes (and certainly not in the fiscal year starting in October). Turnover doesn’t always take place where agencies want it to happen.
But he explained that few agencies know how to oversee the RIF process. “They’re going to find fairly quickly that it’s a lot harder to cut than it seems like it would be,” Neal said.
Trump’s budget blueprint is sparse on explaining how spending reductions might translate into job cuts. Reducing an agency’s budget by a certain percentage does not necessarily mean the workforce would be cut by that same amount. That’s especially the case with agencies that devote much of their spending to contracts and grants, in contrast to agencies that are more labor-intensive per dollar.
As of September, there were 2.096 million total executive branch employees outside the intelligence community and the self-funding U.S. Postal Service, according to an Office of Personnel Management database.
Excluding temporary, seasonal and part-time employees puts the number at 1.867 million.
The one agency workforce the budget specifically targets is the Environmental Protection Agency, where an overall spending reduction of 31 percent “would result in approximately 3,200 fewer positions at the agency” — about a 20 percent job cut from a workforce of about 15,600.
“You can’t drain the swamp and leave all the people in it. So I guess the first place that comes to mind will be the Environmental Protection Agency — that the president wants a smaller EPA. He thinks they overreach, and the budget reflects that,” Mulvaney said.
Other agencies facing substantial cuts include the Departments of State, Agriculture, Labor and Health and Human Services. Further reductions could lie ahead due to a recently issued executive order calling for a government-wide reorganization to make agencies more efficient, with a formal proposal expected in about a year.
However, budgets have to go through Congress. Even some elements of the upcoming reorganization plan would require Capitol Hill’s approval.
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) has asked his staff to review whether voluntary buyouts across the government would be a better way to shrink the workforce because they provide incentives for retirement-eligible and other employees to leave.
Congress additionally could face pressure to increase the long-existing cap of $25,000 for a buyout, as it did in boosting the maximum at the Defense Department to $40,000 in a law passed late in 2016.
by Eric Yoder and Lisa Rein Washington Post