Federal workers in Maryland and across the nation are bracing for reductions in head counts, civil service protections and even salaries when President-elect Donald Trump and Congress turn their attention to government spending later this year.
Trump, who ran on a promise to “drain the swamp,” has identified hiring freezes at most federal agencies as a top priority for his early days in office. Republican lawmakers, many of whom have long advocated for reducing Washington’s footprint, are looking to cut benefits and make it easier to fire poor performers.
“People don’t know what to believe, and they’re in a state of uneasiness,” said Witold Skwierczynski, a Catonsville man and the head of the American Federation of Government Employees council that oversees Social Security Administration field offices. “That’s the feeling I hear. People are unsettled.”
“There are too many people working in the federal government, too many federal agencies; there’s an alphabet soup,” he said. “What we’re simply saying is the federal government has grown too big.” As in other areas of his agenda, Trump has offered few specifics about his policy plans. He has promised to make cuts so deep that “your head will spin” and has named Cabinet appointments who have questioned the purposes of the departments they will lead.
Voters and federal workers will get early insight into how much of the campaign rhetoric will become part of Trump’s agenda when at least seven appointees appear this week for confirmation hearings, including those seeking the top posts at the departments of Justice, State, Homeland Security and Housing and Urban Development.
Congressional Republicans, who opened a new session of Congress on Tuesday, wasted no time focusing on federal workers.
The House revived an obscure rule dating to the late 1800s — a measure mostly lost in the controversy surrounding ethics rules — to give individual lawmakers the ability to amend spending legislation to cut federal agencies and programs, and even target an individual employee’s salary.
Named after a former Indiana congressman, the Holman Rule was devised in 1876 as a way for the Appropriations Committee to deal with ballooning national debt after the Civil War. It was repeatedly revised and revived until it was abandoned in the early 1980s.
Depending on how lawmakers use the rule, they could undermine long-standing civil service protections, such as ensuring federal employees with the same job title are paid equally regardless of performance.
Democrats are concerned that the rule could also be used to punish employees for political purposes.
Those fears have their genesis in an episode last month when Trump transition officials requested that the Department of Energy identify employees who had worked on climate change initiatives. Trump has questioned the role humans have on climate, calling global warming “a hoax.”
“It’s unfortunate. These are our front-line public servants, and they’re clearly going to be under assault,” said Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, who has thwarted similar cuts in the past but now will have less leverage.
“I haven’t heard too many people say we’re doing too much at NIH,” he said, referring to the Bethesda-based National Institutes of Health. “I haven’t heard too many people say that we should reduce the number of people who protect our food supply at the FDA.”
The real test of the rule will come this spring when Congress begins to bring appropriations bills to the House floor. Lawmakers approved a stopgap spending measure in December to keep the government running through April.
Rep. Andy Harris of Baltimore County, the state’s only Republican in Congress, supported the new iteration of the rule. Harris said in a statement he expects it will be used “exceedingly rarely” and said the idea is to “help to restore … ‘power of the purse’ authority to Congress.”
Other Republicans have indicated they want to reduce the government’s contributions to employee retirement accounts and remove what they view as red tape in firing underperforming workers.
Trump transition officials did not respond to a request for comment.
Empirically, the size of the federal government hasn’t grown significantly since the 1960s. In 1962, there were 2.5 million civilian federal employees and 2.8 million uniformed military personnel, according to the Office of Personnel Management.
By 2014, civilian federal employment had grown to 2.7 million, while the number of military personnel fell to 1.5 million.
Those numbers, however, do not reflect the extensive use of private contractors to perform work once handled in-house by federal employees.
The proposals to cut the workforce have been particularly worrisome to lawmakers in Maryland and Northern Virginia, home to some of the largest concentrations of federal workers in the nation. A group of House members from the Washington region — all Democrats — said last week that Republicans were treating “civil servants like political pawns and scapegoats.”
Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Baltimore County Democrat whose district includes Fort Meade and Aberdeen Proving Ground, will send a letter this week to Trump calling on the president-elect to rethink the hiring freeze.
There is little debate that Maryland’s economy will be tied closely to future spending decisions in Washington.
The state’s bipartisan Board of Revenue Estimates wrote in December that recent federal budget cuts approved by Congress had disproportionately affected Maryland’s economy, though it did not define the extent of the impact. The group wrote that there is “considerable federal policy uncertainty” with the incoming presidential administration.
“The federal government is the core driver of the Maryland economy, whether we like it or not,” said Richard Clinch, director of the Jacob France Institute at the University of Baltimore. “When the federal government gets nervous, employees don’t buy houses, cars and flat-screen TVs.”
In addition to Social Security, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, NIH and the Food & Drug Administration, Maryland is home to massive military installations such as Aberdeen, Meade and Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Southern Maryland, as well as a community of defense contractors associated with those sites.
Trump has vowed to exempt defense and public safety agencies from his proposed hiring freeze, and has called for expanding military investment.
Such spending could benefit the region’s economy.
Another outstanding question is how the incoming Trump administration will handle the FBI’s request for a new headquarters, which is expected to be located in either Prince George’s County or Virginia. The Obama administration had continued to move the project forward, but Trump has said little about whether he will support funding the new building.
Roughly 11,000 people would work at the site, making it one of the region’s largest federal facilities.
For now, federal employees and the unions that represent them are watching closely for clues.
“I think our members are cautiously pessimistic,” said Randy Erwin, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees. “I think we owe it to the new administration to reserve judgment.
“Trump,” Erwin noted with a hint of optimism, “is a little bit unpredictable.”