Budget Cuts Loom But It’s Still Business as Usual for Most Federal Employees

Written by Suzanne Pollak on . Posted in Capital Commentary

With President Donald Trump’s proposed budget calling for cuts of 20 to 30 percent in multiple departments, the constant barrage of ugly political discourse (coming from both sides of the aisle), and memos restricting what those working in the trenches of the vast federal bureaucracy may say to the press — well, maybe working for the federal government isn’t nearly the cushy job everyone says it is. 


“It’s difficult,” confided one federal employee who has worked at the U.S. Department of Labor for decades. Still, he said, “the beat goes on,” as does his daily work. He, like others interviewed for this article, agreed to be interviewed on the condition of anonymity due to concerns about job security.

Trump’s budget for Fiscal Year 2018 calls for increasing the budget for defense and homeland security by five and seven percent, respectively, but funds for the Environmental Protection Agency are slated to be reduced by 31 percent, the State Department 29 percent, agriculture by 21 percent, and labor by 20 percent. What happens next is in the hands of Congress.

In the meantime, there has been a clampdown on communication with the press. Earlier this month, employees of the Department of Commerce were “provided with very, very clear guidance” that if they were contacted by the media, no matter how local, they were to keep mum.

“I am not happy with that, but there is no leeway,” said one employee who received these instructions.

Despite the proposed budget cuts and the heightened tension in federal agencies, however, the people interviewed for this article generally took a wait-and-see attitude as work carries on.

An employee of the National Cancer Institute, a division of the National Institutes of Health, said while the current hiring freeze has been “disruptive,” he has weathered such edicts before; during governmental shut-downs, for example, and the automatic budget cuts during sequestration.

He also is not happy with proposed cuts to his retirement plan that would virtually amount to a salary cut, but he knows it could be worse.

What really troubles this individual, who is a long-time federal employee, is his fear that young people will no longer want to work for the government. Working for the government is “a public service,” he said, one worth taking a reduced salary for the betterment of the country. He worries the perception of a negative environment in the field will drive away the next generation of public servants.

He is not worried about losing his job. The National Cancer Institute won’t be eliminated, he said, because “Congress is full of old men, all worried about their prostate.”

An employee with the Department of Defense, one of the few offices targeted for a budget increase, said he works down “in the trenches” and is therefore unaffected by any changes brought on by a Republican administration.

He did point out that while the Department of Defense is slated for increased funding, programs are still being slashed and employees are being moved to other offices to work on different projects. This, combined with attrition, has resulted in fewer employees where he works.

“They emptied the ranks in the subdivision of my agency,” said the Silver Spring resident.  “At our level, what we see is poaching of our personnel, so it is harder to get things done.”

Projects now take longer to complete and parts are on hold until someone with the proper expertise can work on them since the former experts have moved elsewhere.

That being said, personnel moves are not new or unique to the present situation, he added, They have been going on for several years.

He hasn’t noticed a morale change among his coworkers, either. “Attitude-wise, for the most part, we tend to hang in through thick and thin,” he said.

One Labor department employee with more than 40 years under his belt agreed. “People are trying to keep a stiff upper lip and continue with the work,” he said. Having worked under several presidential administrations, including Ronald Reagan, this employee said he’s built up “some antibodies” to help him weather budget cuts.

However, he noted, while Reagan was conservative, what is happening now “is crazy.”

“In an official meeting, it’s very careful. You don’t get into [politics],” he said. “Our office head speaks about what is going on. It’s all very careful. It’s sort of neutral. We know how to speak in career settings.”

When all is said and done, he said, the attitude of career federal employees is that as long as the law remains, the country will go on.

One new employee at the Centers for Medicare/Medicaid is not feeling so stoic. She is working on marketplace data for a Trump Administration that wants to “dismantle the whole marketplace.” Her immediate supervisor and director left right before the inauguration, creating instability in her office.

While she expects changes, however, she also is confident that Medicaid will not go away.

An employee with the National Science Foundation feels the same. Her department “is sheltered from the storm,” she said, as it is not involved in hot-button topics like global warming, although her office is in a larger department tentatively slated for a 20 percent budget decrease.

While her work continues, outside the office, she finds it troublesome that she has been asked how she can work for an administration that is accused of not believing in science, she said.

It’s not only federal employees worried about budget cuts and jobs. A ripple effect also has Montgomery County employees concerned, as local governments rely on the federal government to help fund many programs.

Employees working in housing “are preparing for major budget cuts,” particularly in the area of housing vouchers, said one county employee. With housing, money starts with Congress, which allocates it to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). HUD then allocates funding to individual states, which in turn divide they money further for allocation to local communities. HUD is slated for a six billion dollar decrease in Trump’s budget proposal, the county employee said.

His office has already held meetings on how to reduce the county’s dependence on the federal government, he said. “The problem is, right now, it’s all speculation,” he pointed out. “We don’t know how this is going to shake out.”

As for the Department of Commerce employee who spoke of being banned from speaking to the press, her stress level hasn’t changed. Her manager reassured the staff that all incoming presidents have an agenda, and they all “push the boundaries,” she said.

Generally, she said, it’s calm in her office, where she has been working for about a decade. Outside of work, however, “I feel much more political than I ever have,” she said. She knows friends and congregants who voted for Trump; when in their homes, she answers their specific questions but doesn’t disclose anything beyond that, she said.

“I am doing work I am happy in. I haven’t been asked to do anything” illegal or immoral, she said. “I can make it four years. I don’t know about eight.”

By Suzanne Pollak

 Suzanne Pollak is the senior writer/editor at Jewish Council for the Aging of Greater Washington. She was a reporter at The Courier Post in New Jersey and The Washington Jewish Week, and she now writes for The Montgomery Sentinel.