Mellman: First things first?

Mellman: First things first?
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Starting at the bottom.

That phrase, applied to the first days of the Trump presidency, could mean so many different things.

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Here’s where I’m going with it: Notwithstanding the confusing and contradictory claims that characterized President Trump’s campaign, he did make a few clear-cut promises to the American people.

Now Gallup has found that the new administration is focusing on those least important to the American people, while delaying efforts to deal with the most important.

One of the administration’s first acts was a hiring freeze on some federal workers.

Gallup asked how important each of 13 Trump campaign promises were. The federal hiring freeze ranked ninth out of 13, with just 34 percent of Americans deeming it “very important.”

The hiring freeze ranked ninth among Republicans and Democrats, college- and noncollege-educated voters. 

Perhaps voters intuit the farcical nature of a policy that has been tried and failed.

On the one hand, Trump’s order contains loopholes bigger than the rule: “The head of any executive department or agency may exempt from the hiring freeze any positions that it deems necessary to meet national security or public safety responsibilities,” or the Office of Personnel Management can exempt hiring “where those exemptions are otherwise necessary.”

In other words, “Pay no attention to that order getting all the press.”

In 1982, the comptroller general of the United States issued a report on previous freezes, and the facts are not very encouraging.

Having studied earlier attempts, the comptroller concluded hiring freezes “caused decreased oversight of Federal programs … caused lost revenue and uncollected debts … increased the cost of Government operations ... disrupted some agency programs and operations.”

Lots of costs and still looking for a benefit.

The simple fact is that there are fewer federal employees today than there were under President Reagan, despite the fact that they are serving a population nearly one-third larger than it was then. 

One expensive tactic agencies use to subvert orders like Trump’s is contracting out instead of hiring new employees.

The U.S. government already has more contract workers than employees, and Trump’s order leaves them untouched.

Freezing federal employment is a low public priority for good reason.

By contrast, Trump’s promise to “enact a major spending program to strengthen infrastructure” is far and away the president’s most important promise from voters’ point of view.

Sixty-nine percent consider it “very important,” putting it 35 points ahead of the federal hiring freeze and 15 points ahead of the second item on the list, a tax cut.

Polls we have conducted for the Alliance for American Manufacturing have long demonstrated overwhelming support for substantial infrastructure investments.

Just after the election, working with North Star Opinion Research, we found 71 percent of voters saying that “invest[ing] in repairing roads, bridges and basic infrastructure” is at least a “very” important proposal for the president and Congress to work on.

More than three-quarters of Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonRoger Stone challenges Dems to produce WikiLeaks evidence Steve King asks Google CEO for names of employees to see if they're liberals O'Rourke edges out Biden in MoveOn straw poll MORE voters, 76 percent, and two-thirds of Trump voters, 68 percent, wanted action on infrastructure.

And they want it made in America. Seventy-four percent say infrastructure projects, financed with taxpayer money, should be built using American materials by American workers, while only 17 percent believe projects should be built by the lowest bidder to ensure tax dollars are spent efficiently.

And where is this top public priority on Washington’s agenda?

House Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanHouse Republicans move to block Yemen war-powers votes for rest of Congress Stefanik: GOP leaders need to step up their female recruitment efforts McConnell agrees to vote on Trump-backed criminal justice bill MORE (R-Wis.), who has been busy eliminating provisions to buy American, will be “happy” to add infrastructure to the agenda later in the year.

Transportation Secretary-designate Elaine Chao is anxious to appoint a task force to study it.

I’m sure neither President Trump nor Ryan is anxious for my advice, but if I were them, I’d spend the early days of the administration focusing on the central, not the trivial.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the minority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.