Trump Remark on Firing Federal Workers: ‘Red Meat’ for Base?

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By Louis C. LaBrecque

The president’s comment in his State of the Union address that Congress should give Cabinet secretaries authority “to remove federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people” may show the administration is preparing to overhaul the civil service system.

That’s not a good way to begin the process, Thomas Hill, a visiting fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, told Bloomberg Law Jan. 31.

“If the White House is serious about doing reform, the quickest way to kill that effort is to talk about firing people,” Hill said.

Instead, the White House should talk about efficiency, effectiveness, and saving money, Hill said.

Some Democrats in Congress are interested in changing how the government works, particularly the State Department and Foreign Service, he said. Hill was a senior staffer for the GOP majority on the House Foreign Affairs Committee from March 2013 until August 2017.

Talking about firing federal employees may be “red meat” for the president’s base, but it’s unlikely to engage Democrats and Republicans who might support a more nuanced approach, he said.

Firing Process Called Too Complex

It takes a year and a half, on average, to fire a federal worker, Rachel Greszler, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, told Bloomberg Law.

The complexity of the termination process can dissuade managers from the undertaking, except for extreme cases of misconduct, Greszler said.

“What the president said can be misinterpreted” as being flippant, but that’s not how the administration is looking at the issue, she said.

“The intent here is to provide a fair and just system so that there is an avenue to get employees out” when warranted, Greszler said.

The White House, its Office of Management and Budget, and the Office of Personnel Management didn’t respond Jan. 31 to a request for comment.

Preview of Budget Request?

Robert Shea, a former official at the White House Office of Management and Budget, told Bloomberg Law before the president’s address that a mention of plans to change how federal employees are hired, paid, fired, or managed would most likely be followed Feb. 12 by a more substantial description of what the administration has in mind.

That’s when the administration plans to unveil its fiscal year 2019 budget request, Shea said.

“You can expect to see a lot of meat on the bones for whatever is hinted at in the address,” Shea, now a principal at Grant Thornton in Alexandria, Va., said of the budget proposal.

Beginning of Larger Effort?

The VA Accountability Act, signed in June, allows the secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs to expedite the process for demoting, suspending, or firing employees.

The president’s remarks may indicate the administration is ready to throw its weight behind a bill being drafted by Reps. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio) and Barry Loudermilk (R-Ga.) to extend such authority to other agencies. The two congressmen asked agency heads in November whether similar authority would “be beneficial to operational efficiency, morale, and employee accountability” at their agencies.

The president of the National Treasury Employees Union panned Trump’s remarks on making it easier to fire federal workers.

“Federal employees must retain existing protections that stop unfair and arbitrary management practices, along with political favoritism and retaliation,” NTEU President Tony Reardon said in a statement issued Jan. 30.

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