Hiring Freeze Hangover

Monday - 6/13/2011, 4:00am EDT

If your government job involves drawing, studying, storing or even shedding blood, wildlife management, overseeing public lands or minerals, weather forecasting, mine safety, health care, or most kinds of research, public safety or law enforcement - or any of a dozen other things - it may be safe from any hiring freeze.

A House subcommittee is due to take up legislation that would reduce federal employment by 10 percent by allowing agencies to fill only one of every three vacancies. Or not...

If Congress and the White House agree to a partial federal hiring freeze, it will know exactly how it wants it to work. And it is simple enough. Limit hiring until goal achieved. Simple. Or not...

In fact until it becomes a reality, nobody knows exactly how it will work and whether it will be a good thing or a nightmare. What we do know is that it has been done before, a number of times. The success or failure of each hiring freeze is more often a matter of personal or political opinon rather than a provable fact.

It is also true that, at least in the past, even the most extreme government-haters wound up demanding or at least supporting hiring loopholes when it benefited them, or their constituents.

In one of his first official acts, President Ronald Reagan made good on a campaign promise to freeze federal hiring. The paperwork was drawn up right after the election and he issued the directive on Inauguration Day, 1981.

Drawing upon lessons learned from a Senate-inspired hiring freeze a decade earlier, the Reagan administration left a fair amount of wiggle room for limited hiring for a limited number of jobs in a limited number of agencies. The exception read like this:

    "... upon determination by the agency head that hiring is necessitated by emergency situations involving directly the safety of human life or the protection of property. The determination must be based upon a clear indication that human safety could be affected directly or that property could be damaged. Such a determination may be applied in situations where medical, hospital, or other health care is furnished directly and where protection of property or persons is the primary purpose of employment. Air safety functions are also included. This exception does not apply to employment involving research, or other activities that ultimately affect human safety. It also does not apply to employment for maintenance of facilities or land and forest management..."

The order said that contractors were not to be hired or used to replace feds or the work they did.

The 1970s federal hiring freeze was billed as solid. Without exceptions. A no-prisoners operation. Except...

Except members of Congress were bombarded by voters who had been promised jobs, and communities that depended (and still do) on a biweekly stream of federal payroll dollars. Someone figured out that each federal job created, in whole or part, five non-federal jobs. Think restaurants, stores, parking lots, vacation spots.

So the 1970s Congress quickly exempted the Defense Department, the Postal Service and the Veterans Administration. Oh, and the IRS and the Food and Drug Administration too! And of course the Customs Service. And most of the FAA, what were we thinking silly? Any three of those operations had more employees than the rest of the government combined. The FBI, CIA and others were also exempted. It's a good bet that the U.S. Capitol police force, which protects members of Congress, kept on keeping on.

Something Congress should consider is this: There has not been a hiring freeze since 9/11. That changed the country, and the government forever. And it changed the complexion of the government workforce forever. There was no huge stand-alone Department of Homeland Security, or Transportation Security Administration.

If the Reagan exemptions are continued (and they probably should be) and new agencies, jobs and duties are exempted, that leaves one big question: What's left to cut? Who takes the hit and for how long?

To reach me: mcausey@federalnewsradio.com


Nearly Useless Factoid
by Suzanne Kubota

LiveScience headline: "Arizona Wildfire Blamed on 'Too Many Trees'" So now we don't have that to worry about any more, right?


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