Politics & Policy

Trump to Bureaucrats: You’re Not Hired.

(Photo: Rawpixelimages/Dreamstime)
But don’t depend on government to shrink the size of government.

Last week, following through on a campaign promise, President Trump announced a hiring freeze on federal civilian workers — “across the board.”

The freeze, said Trump’s surrogate embellisher, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, “ensures the American taxpayers get effective and efficient government.”

The response from federal workers was less enthusiastic. “All Americans should be outraged,” said J. David Cox Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees.

Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, told the Washington Post that the freeze would “be harmful and counterproductive,” resulting in “more frustration for Americans seeking help from their government.” Not to mention more frustration for those working for the government.

Because of the freeze, said Max Stier, president of the D.C.-based nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, the government won’t be able “to prevent cyberattacks on federal computer systems, ensure the safety of our food supply and air quality, and provide important services to small businesses, farmers, seniors, veterans, and students.”

The message is clear: You will suffer if you make us suffer.

It’s both hard and easy to blame them. After all, their livelihoods are at stake. On the other hand, we pay for their livelihoods.

Government programs serve a purpose even when they don’t serve a purpose: They provide employment to the people administering them. Hence, wasteful and unnecessary programs become jobs programs, producing within them a self-interested class of bureaucrats who want above all to keep their jobs, ostensibly to serve the public. To abolish a program means firing its staff. Given how hard it is to fire federal workers, the Trump administration is doing the next best thing, which is to forestall the hiring of (more of) them.

However, the freeze is limited. It doesn’t apply to political appointments, military personnel, or “any positions” involving “national security or public safety responsibilities.” According to the Congressional Budget Office, the freeze will affect “about 70,000 employees” — out of the approximately 2.8 million federal workers employed nationwide — exempting two-thirds of the federal civilian workforce. Not exactly “across the board.”

Moreover, the freeze will expire as soon as the Office of Management and Budget devises “a long-term plan to reduce the size of the Federal Government’s workforce through attrition.” The OMB has 90 days to come up with one.

To sum up: Government is relying on government to reduce the size of government.

Proponents of smaller government should not get their hopes up. This sort of thing has been tried before, with disappointing results. On his first day in office, President Reagan instituted a hiring freeze. He said it would “eventually lead to a significant reduction in the size of the federal work force.” It didn’t. When Reagan took office, there were 2,961,000 federal employees; when he left, there were 3,158,000.

While the number of federal workers has remained more or less static in recent decades, the size of the federal government has grown immensely. It encompasses 440 agencies, spends almost $4 trillion a year, and operates 2,304 subsidy programs. By the time you read this, those numbers might be higher.

Why does the government grow? There are many reasons, but the predominant one is also the most depressing: Government grows because government is popular, in spite of what voters tell pollsters.

Reagan’s presidency illustrates this point. Elected with a mandate to trim government, Reagan oversaw its expansion. Under his watch, federal spending rose and the federal debt tripled. The Department of Education, which Reagan vowed to abolish, not only survived but grew. To the dismay of conservatives, Reagan supported catastrophic health insurance (described by George Will at the time as “one of the most important post–New Deal enrichments of the Welfare State”).

The lesson of history is that government grows irrespective of the wishes and ideological inclinations of its chief executive.

Despite saying he wanted “to get government out of farming,” Reagan bragged at the 1986 Illinois State Fair, “This year alone we’ll spend more on farm support programs . . . than the total amount the last administration provided in all of its four years.” The audience interrupted his eleven-minute speech with applause 15 times.

The lesson of history is that government grows irrespective of the wishes and ideological inclinations of its chief executive.

Our politics are a reflection of our culture. Through our elected representatives, we codify our values and priorities in the federal budget, which is dispiriting to those who bother to read it.

Government is not the problem. We are.

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