President Trump has followed through on a campaign promise of a hiring freeze on non-military personnel.
No vacant positions existing at noon on January 22, 2017, may be filled and no new positions may be created, except in limited circumstances, according to a presidential memo. OPM may grant exemptions at its discretion. Agency heads may exempt positions deemed to meet national security or public safety. Political appointments are not affected by the order.
The hiring freeze is eventually to be replaced by an OMB plan to reduce the federal workforce through attrition. House speaker Paul Ryan, R-WI, has advocated for a hiring freeze by attrition of up to 10 percent of the overall workforce, arguing it could save $49 billion over ten years. He issued a statement in praise of Trump’s action saying the President, “has taken a critical first step toward reining in Washington bureaucracy.”
Trump’s campaign this summer said a smaller workforce would make it harder to conceal corruption. Although if auditing or inspectors general functions are deemed non-essential transparency could suffer as a result.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer on Monday said the hiring freeze is meant to counter a “dramatic expansion of the federal workforce in recent years,” and that it “prevents filling vacant positions and creating new positions except when necessary to meet national or public security responsibilities. It does not apply to military personnel and it ensures that American taxpayers get effective and efficient government.”
Spicer may be referring to an increase from 1,862,404 in 2007 to a peak size of 2,130,289 in 2011. However, budget cuts, sequestration and otherwise have seen those numbers fall back to 2,058,924 as of 2015 (those numbers are from OPM). And the Partnership for Public Service has noted in the context of discussion on the size of the workforce – that it has remained relatively stable in the past 40 years even as the overall US population has increased by more than half.
Past efforts to implement hiring freezes have run into challenges as well, and benefits had been hard to achieve. GAO studied freezes in the 1980s (http://www.gao.gov/products/FPCD-82-21) and found that spending increased in some cases as agencies had to procure outside services to meet mission requirements or spend more on overtime, for example. Customer service declined for some agencies such as the SSA. GAO largely faulted the arbitrary nature of an across-the-board freeze and recommended improved workforce planning and use of the budget as a control on employment.
However, the order explicitly warns against contracting outside the government to circumvent the freeze. It also permits reallocations to meet priority needs and essential services, so it remains to be seen how much reprogramming could take place.
As it is, the freeze should not come as a surprise. Over 100 congressional Democrats signed a letter on January 9 asking Trump to reconsider implementing a freeze. Among the reasons given are a “critical skills gaps in cybersecurity, science, technology, math, engineering, auditing and inspections, procurement, and other key trades,” as identified by GAO in 2011.