In defense of federal employees

Make no mistake: President Trump’s executive order implementing an across-the-board federal workforce hiring freeze is based on a false premise. It will also prove to be a colossal mistake.

Despite the relentless flow of misinformation and “alternative facts,” the federal workforce is not “bloated” and federal employees are not unresponsive bureaucrats in far-away Washington, D.C. Civilian employees of the federal government make up just 1.9 percent of the national workforce, slightly less than the 2.2 percent of the workforce in President Obama’s first year, and far less than the 3.1 percent level that prevailed during the Reagan years. Although the dedicated professionals and highly skilled career federal employees who serve in Washington, D.C., help make America great, more than 85 percent of our nation’s federal employees live outside the nation’s capital region, serving in every community across the country.

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Federal employees support our troops stateside and abroad, fight crime and terrorism and protect our borders. They combat forest fires, inspect our roads and bridges and ensure our aviation system is the safest in the world. They guard and enhance our national parks and lands, guarantee seniors receive their Social Security benefits and process and deliver mail to every address in every type of weather. Our daily bread is safer, our nation’s veterans are healthier and our defenses stronger because of the work that federal employees perform.  

Our economy is stronger because federal employees in every community pay taxes, just like their next-door neighbors. Cities and towns with federal facilities nearby, including military installations, will see their tax revenues pinched by the freeze and subsequent attrition. Ironically, the hiring freeze breaks President Trump’s campaign promise to create jobs.  

The real victims of the federal hiring freeze are not federal employees, who will continue to work hard even if they are short-staffed, but the health and financial well-being of the taxpaying citizens they serve. While the president’s rhetoric on the campaign trail may have enchanted fiscal conservatives, the hiring freeze will likely only increase government spending. Despite the president’s directive to avoid contracting out, domestic agencies and programs will be forced to rely on contractors even more, as the workload will not decrease along with the workforce. As a result, billions more in taxpayer dollars are likely to be spent.

A 1982 report by the then General Accounting Office (GAO) – the congressional research arm, now the Government Accountability Office – evaluating four separate hiring freezes during the Carter and Reagan administrations concluded the freezes resulted in the exact opposite of their intent: they increased government spending as government increasingly relied on contractors to tackle the workload. The report also found that hiring freezes disrupted agency operations because they ignored missions, workloads and staffing requirements of individual agencies. Thirty-five years later, the GAO’s warnings echo throughout Washington’s corridors.

But the fallout from a hiring freeze extends well beyond just spending. In addition to being counterintuitive to the administration’s desire to get Americans “back to work,” the hiring freeze will deny job opportunities to our nation’s veterans. These patriots have earned a hiring preference for federal jobs, and that’s why the federal government is the largest employer of veterans in the country. More than 25 percent of federal employees have faithfully served in the military prior to joining the federal workforce. In 2014, veterans accounted for almost 50 percent of the new hires at the Department of Defense. These employees continue their work with the same love of country that they demonstrated while in uniform. 

In a recent piece in The Wall Street Journal, Republican House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy offensively suggested that federal workers represent “the swamp” in Washington, D.C. One can only hope the majority leader wasn’t referring to the hundreds of thousands of veterans that serve in the federal government, or the 150,000 federal civil servants in his home state of California. Rather than portraying federal employees as a public menace, let’s respect them for what they are – one of our nation’s greatest assets. Mr. President, lift the freeze.

Kori Blalock Keller is the chair of the Federal-Postal Coalition, which comprises 30 organizations representing our nation’s five million active and retired federal and postal employees.


The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.