As one of his first acts as president, Donald Trump on Monday signed a presidential memorandum instituting a hiring freeze across the federal government, except for the military.
The move follows through on a pledge he made on the campaign trail to halt federal hiring on his first day of office. This, he said at the time, would “reduce federal workforce through attrition” and tie into his pledge to “drain the swamp” and address corruption. But past experience shows that across-the-board government hiring freezes don’t reduce the workforce or save money. On the contrary, they often increase costs while making the government’s work less accountable to the public.
The non-partisan Government Accountability Office concluded as much in 1982. In a report released at that time that looked back at four previous freezes, it found, “Government-wide hiring freezes have not been an effective means of controlling Federal employment.”
Because freezes were doled out equally, regardless of each agency’s workload, agencies had to find other ways to get their work done — and many turned to contractors, which aren’t subject to the same transparency regulations as the government workforce. That includes disclosure laws like the Freedom of Information Act and the Federal Register Act that make information on what employees do available to the public.
Contracting out of government work has continued in recent years, however; in the wake of hiring freeze imposed by President Obama, the number of contract workers has jumped, doubling between 1999 and 2010. There are now 3.7 million people contracted to do the government’s work, compared to 2.1 on its payrolls.
Freezes, the GAO found in 1982, also “caused decreased oversight of Federal programs by making it more difficult for the Inspector General offices to do their jobs.”
The report also couldn’t conclude that freezes save money. Contractors still have to be paid. Other agencies reacted to them by simply forcing existing employees to work more, which meant they had to be paid more through overtime, or by hiring part-time and temporary workers. And when agencies were forced to cut back on what they got done, it meant the government lost revenue and failed to collect debts. All of that ended up costing more money. “Any potential savings produced by these freezes would be partially or completely offset,” the GAO wrote.
Trump has also promised to be the “greatest jobs producer that God ever created.” But his action will mean thousands of people who would have otherwise been hired by the federal government must still wait for a job. The federal government had hired 42,000 people in October and another 41,000 in November, but now that process will come to a halt, even though it had another 81,000 jobs it wanted to fill as of November.
Although Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer said on Monday afternoon that there has been a “dramatic expansion” of the federal workforce, it’s actually declined for some time outside of temporary spikes in Census years. By raw numbers it’s at a lower level than it was in 1967 and has shrunk dramatically as a share of the overall workforce.