WASHINGTON — The government hiring freeze put in place by US President Donald Trump will apply to Department of Defense civilian positions but will not impact uniformed personnel.
Trump signed the hiring freeze order Jan. 23, drawing harsh criticism from both federal employee unions and members of Congress, who worry the freeze will save few dollars but create major headaches for government agencies. The freeze included an exception for national security positions, but the wording was such that it was unclear if the Pentagon was directly impacted or not.
On Wednesday, the Pentagon finally confirmed that its civilian spots would be impacted, but that Secretary of Defense James Mattis can exempt from the hiring freeze any position "that he deems necessary to meet national security or public safety responsibilities," a DoD official told Defense News. Other exemptions must be requested from the Office of Personnel Management.
The memorandum does not impact Senate-confirmable officials, the appointment of officials to non-career positions in the Senior Executive Service or to Schedule C positions in the excepted service, the official added.
"Since January 20, 2017, and prior to our notification of the President's Executive Order on a Federal Hiring Freeze, Washington Headquarters Service (WHS) hired 36 employees to support various functions in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD)," the official added. "Additionally, 18 political appointees have been hired thus far to support the Secretary of Defense. Political appointees are exempt from the Executive Order."
In June, the Pentagon ended a four-month hiring freeze used to ensure personnel were reflected in an internal DoD accounting system.
The freeze also impacts the Department of Veterans Affairs. On Tuesday, acting VA Secretary Robert Snyder said his department "intends to exempt anyone it deems necessary for public safety, including front-line caregivers."
VA officials said the statement was a clarification of how they are interpreting the new presidential order and not an attempt to get around the new rules.
Governmentwide hiring freezes were tried under the Reagan and Carter administrations, but in 1982, the Government Accountability Office found they were not an effective means of controlling federal employment and that any savings would likely be offset by overtime and part-time worker costs.
Those concerns were repeated this week by a bipartisan group of Virginia lawmakers, who represent thousands of federal workers.
"I think it’s largely symbolic," said Virginia Democratic Rep. Don Beyer, whose district is home to 77,000 federal workers. "If you’re a Trump supporter in rural America who thinks your taxpayer dollars are being wasted by too many civilian employees, you might be thrilled by it. But they’re missing the point that we haven’t seen this few federal workers in our lifetime."
Beyer told Defense News that the hiring freeze hurts military retirees and military spouses who hope to enter the federal workforce. It also creates management headaches at the Pentagon, where civilian support staffs have been cut progressively since federal budget caps were enacted.
"As a manager, you’re always trying to do more with less," Beyer said. "They’ve already determined who they need to hire in a critical space, and now you’ve frozen the ability to hire those people."
According to Beyer, upward of 221,000 people were in the pipeline to be hired governmentwide, at least a third of them veterans. He said the freeze would "greatly hurt" the VA, which is looking to hire 2,000 people to deal with backlogged cases.
Virginia Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock on Monday broke with Trump to oppose the governmentwide hiring freeze.
"The federal budget cannot be balanced on the backs of our federal workforce," she said in a statement Monday. "I don’t support this type of across-the-board freeze and think it is better to look at priorities and areas where appropriate cuts can be made and where we can consolidate efforts or identify unnecessary costs that can be eliminated."
Military Times reporter Leo Shane III contributed to this report.