President Trump has cast the shuttering of federal agencies as a standoff over his promise to build a wall on the southern border, paid for (supposedly) by Mexico. But for many White House aides and allies, the partial shutdown is advancing another long-standing priority: shrinking the government.
Prominent advisers to the president have forged their political careers in relentless pursuit of a lean federal budget and a reined-in bureaucracy. As a result, they are quite happy to see large swaths of the government dark, services offline and 800,000 federal workers work without pay or with not work at all. They reckon that Federal workers will drift away, get other jobs, and never need to be replaced.
Reps. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) — leaders of the Freedom Caucus and the president’s top allies in the House — have urged Trump to stay the course. They have built national profiles with calls to slash federal spending — not so much on strengthening border security. “These are small-government guys, not wall guys,” one former White House official has said of Meadows and Jordan. Shrinking government means handing over the savings to supporting donors and the super-rich. This is euphemistically called “democracy”.
The shutdown has in some ways underscored the. onservative view that government can function with fewer employees. They are quite happy to see the Federal deficit balloon out of control, owing to the recent tax legislation that benefitted the rich, but want to save money on federal services to the general population.
While conservatives want to rein in the size of government, a shutdown is not an optimal path They prefer to use a scalpel rather than a sledgehammer, and close agencies thought to be superfluous. Already the shutdown follows two years of contraction of the federal workforce under Trump. During his first 18 months in office, the government shrank by 17,000 employees, according to an analysis of federal personnel data by The Washington Post — the first downward shift in two decades. As one of his first acts, Trump froze hiring across the government, except at the Department of Veterans Affairs and a few other agencies. The freeze morphed into a slowdown that has left hundreds of jobs unfilled as employees retire and quit.
Trump has also signed executive orders — later largely struck down by a federal judge — to weaken the powerful unions that represent federal employees and make it easier to fire them. Just before Christmas, he announced that civil servants would not receive a cost-of-living raise for 2019. The agencies that have seen the largest drops since Trump took office are the Departments of Housing and Urban Development, Education, Commerce and Energy. Many civil servants who have left say they objected to a new culture that seemed to undermine the mission of their agency and undermine their contribution.
There is a growing sense within the White House that a protracted shutdown will produce a cascade of unanticipated effects that could eventually damage the president. Critics worry that the exodus is depleting government of valuable expertise. Almost 20 percent of the workforce overall was eligible to retire in October, including more than a quarter of HUD, the Treasury Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and NASA, according to data compiled by the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service.
Just 6 percent of civil servants are 30 or younger, a trend that started in the Obama administration and has accelerated under Trump. “It’s very hard to look a young professional in the eyes and tell them not only that their talents aren’t sorely needed but that they won’t find a rewarding career where their work and dedication will be valued,” said Phillip Cooper, a professor of public administration at Portland State University who is telling his students to steer clear of federal work. (Edited version of an article by Lisa Rein, Robert Costa and, Danielle Paquette, Washington Post, Jan 14)
A real leader would not, under these circumstances, take a salary himself. To do so would be tactless, to say the least. We haven’t heard whether Trump and the Senate Republicans are still being paid, but I would be surprised if they were not.