For years, Republicans in Congress have been eyeing an overhaul of the federal workforce — by reducing the number of workers and curtailing benefits and pay while making it easier to fire bad employees.
Now, with a president-elect who has promised to do much the same, 2017 could be the best time in recent memory to make sweeping changes affecting those who work for the bureaucracy.
One major plan is being readied by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The Utah Republican calls it “high on our agenda.” While details remain sketchy, it would likely mean big changes to the generous retirement benefits given federal workers, mainly by looking to shift new employees from a defined benefit into a market-based 401(k).
He is also interested in making it easier to fire workers who perform badly and wants to reduce the federal civilian workforce, which currently numbers 2.1 million employees, not including U.S. Postal Service employees.
“We’ve got to deal with budget realities, and while we have good federal workers, we have too many of them,” he told Roll Call.
Republican leaders have long made it clear they’d like to see major changes to the civilian workforce. In fiscal 2016, the House and Senate budget resolutions called for a reduction in the number of civilian employees using a formula that would allow agencies to hire one new employee for every three who leave, reducing the workforce by roughly 10 percent while exempting “national-security positions.”
The House budget resolution also called for an eventual phaseout of the defined benefit pension while increasing employee contributions to 6.35 percent, among other benefit changes. The House plan would have saved roughly $281 billion over 10 years, according to figures compiled by Government Executive.
AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, said the Wisconsin Republican “believes civil service reform is necessary and will look to the committee to work on the substance.”
Republicans would likely exempt those employees deemed essential for national security, or roughly 50 percent of the total workforce, according to some experts. Chaffetz said he’d seek to increase the number of Secret Service employees. If President-elect Donald Trump wants to institute a hiring freeze, as he has promised, he can do so via executive order or other actions.
Chaffetz has yet to settle on a firm formula on how to achieve reductions, but he said some sort of attrition plan will likely be part of the bill. “I haven’t locked down on a formula, but I think an attrition formula is a wise way to go,” he said.
The congressman shepherding such legislation during its early stages will be an intriguing player to watch. North Carolina GOP Rep. Mark Meadows, the chairman of the Government Operations subcommittee, will also be the head of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus next year.
In 2015, he was stripped of his chairmanship by Chaffetz during a fight over the speakership of John A. Boehner — though Chaffetz ultimately relented and reinstated Meadows. That same year, Meadows embarked on a “listening tour” of federal agencies, and later offered an apology to federal workers whom he said were being unfairly scapegoated.
In an interview, Meadows said that he was preparing to work on “meaningful reform that works well with accountability and efficiency” and said the complexity of the issues involved means that a bill would likely not be out during the early part of 2017.
Paul C. Light, a professor at New York University who studies the federal workforce, said federal workers shouldn’t necessarily be afraid of potential changes, but “should be very uncertain about what the future holds.” He said some revisions are needed but called the attrition proposals he’s seen “irresponsible.”
“It’s not only a blunt ax, it’s a rusty, damaging ax,” Light said. The main problem he sees with most attrition proposals is that they offer no safeguard to prevent a stampede out the door of the most experienced and highest-performing workers.
In this environment, he predicted Democrats would have a difficult time trying to block new legislation, and will likely need to meet Republicans on some issues. “I think it’s going to pass the House, and it’s going to be very, very tough,” he said. “And the Senate Democrats are going to have to take action. … They’re going to have to come up with a proposal that deals with the problems we’re having in the civil service system.”
Democratic Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland, where the Food and Drug Administration, National Institutes of Health and National Security Agency are located, gave no indication that Democrats are ready to compromise.
He said some agencies are understaffed as is and that they’re “not going to be able to carry out their mission” if Republican proposals on worker reduction succeed. “The federal workforce is a high priority for us. We believe in the importance of governmental service,” he said, adding, “I’m against any effort to diminish the compensation package for federal workers.”
It was unclear whether a companion bill will be readied in the Senate, though Chaffetz suggested one might be in the offing “in the new year.”
Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Ron Johnson of Wisconsin has long made it clear that he believes the workforce is both too large and overcompensated. In an email statement, Johnson said he is looking forward to working with Trump and Chaffetz on “long-overdue reforms.”
“The best way to achieve this is to come to the negotiating table with all stakeholders. We may not agree on everything, but if we start with the areas of agreement, I am confident that we can make continuous improvements to the functionality of the federal workforce,” Johnson said.
Sen. James Lankford, the chairman of the Regulatory Affairs and Federal Management subcommittee that deals with federal workers, said that “we’re not necessarily looking at ways to reduce the federal workforce, we’re looking at the effectiveness of how it actually operates.”
The Oklahoma Republican said his committee is focused on ways to overhaul the Office of Personnel Management and its perpetual backlog of processing retirement applications, and speeding up the hiring process, among other issues.
In 2011, GOP Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah offered legislation aimed at thinning the workforce by 15 percent over a decade. He said he did not have any new legislation to offer, and said only last week: “I’m going to support President-elect Trump as much as I can. We’ll do whatever we have to.”