Biden confronts staffing crisis at federal agencies

Donald Trump’s four-year war with the so-called “deep state” will leave Joe Biden a hollowed out and weakened federal workforce — one the president-elect will be forced to rebuild if he wants a shot at executing his sweeping policy agenda.

Trump just this week forced out his Defense secretary and top officials overseeing policy and intelligence at the Pentagon. More than two dozen political appointees have fled the Department of Health and Human Services since the start of the Covid-19 crisis in February. And the Agriculture Department has seen hundreds of scientists and economists quit their posts since Secretary Sonny Perdue forced two major research arms to relocate from Washington, D.C. to Missouri last year.

The mass exodus at federal agencies started Trump’s first year in office. Roughly 24,000 more government employees left in the first nine months of his term than departed at the start of President Barack Obama’s term. Trump’s relentless attacks on the civil service have dragged down morale and exacerbated decades-old trends of decline in some agencies, driving both political and career staff out in droves. Even now — as Trump refuses to concede, his officials threaten to fire staff caught looking for new jobs and his administration resists calls to certify Biden the official winner of the presidential election — hundreds of thousands of civil servants remain in limbo.

The departures have drained away decades of expertise. Paired with a rapidly aging workforce and a new push to strip protections from the career staff, that has left some key federal agencies operating below capacity. Without a fix, it could hinder Biden’s ability to carry out his most urgent agenda items come January.

“I think they face real challenges implementing much of anything,” said Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University. “They’ve got to move quickly to send the signal that the adults are back in the room, and we’re going to start fixing agencies one by one.”

Biden’s team, for its part, appears to recognize the enormity of the task ahead. Campaign officials started raising money over the summer for Biden’s transition to power, acknowledging at the time that his lead in the presidential race was holding and that if he won, he would be inheriting a government with gaping personnel holes.

Since the election, transition team officials have referenced the need to rebuild as well. In an email sent this week to Democratic chiefs of staff on Capitol Hill, transition aide Louisa Terrell noted that Biden “will inherit a hollowed out federal workforce” and as a result will need to “identify an unprecedented number of highly-qualified public servants ready to begin their service in the early days of the administration.” The memo asked members of Congress to send them suggestions of who out of “America’s best talent” they should nominate to key agency posts.

One person who has been in touch with the transition said the Biden team is working to get potentially thousands more people than usual ready to head into government jobs by Inauguration Day.

“There’s an understanding that they just have to get in quickly and put people in these seats and support the workforce and start rebuilding right away,” this person said. “It’s going to be frenetic.”

Some agencies have shown greater signs of strain than others — reflecting, in many cases, the level of rancor between the Trump administration and the department’s career staff. Employment at the mid-size Department of Education, for example, dropped by more than 14 percent between December 2016 and December 2019, according to data compiled by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service and shared with POLITICO. Morale is also lower there than any other agency of similar size, and it has declined steadily as Secretary Betsy DeVos has taken unpopular steps to curtail teleworking and engaged in an ongoing battle with the employee union.

Other agencies tell similar stories. The Labor Department’s workforce contracted by more than 12 percent in the same three-year span, during which the Trump administration has been regularly criticized for dismantling worker rights and labor protections. Non-Foreign Service employment at the State Department has fallen by nearly 9 percent, a side effect of Trump’s unpredictable foreign policy that sparked a striking number of resignations early on in his term.

The mammoth Agriculture Department, too, has seen its workforce shrink by almost 8 percent — a loss of more than 5,800 employees — a consequence in part of Perdue’s decision to force two major research offices to relocate to the Kansas City area.

With too few people interested in going into government, high turnover once they’re hired, and too few protections against pressure and retaliation, the unions and organizations representing federal workers say a top-to-bottom overhaul of the civil service is desperately needed.

Jason Briefel, the director of policy and outreach at the Senior Executives Association, which represents thousands of career government employees, cited a GAO study released earlier this year that contained a bombshell: 60 percent of all new federal employees are leaving within 2 years.

“That’s a blinking red light,” he said. “Folks who are interested in contributing to an agency’s mission are finding they don’t have the ability to have the impact they’re seeking to have. They’re being told: ‘Here’s your box, wait your turn.’ That’s not sustainable.”

The primary effect of the mass exodus from federal agencies is a loss of institutional knowledge, experts say — one that will make it harder for a Biden administration to implement any of its sweeping policy goals, of which there are many.

“You can’t recover that in one administration,” said Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a nonresident senior fellow with the Brookings Institution focused on governance studies. “When they don’t have that expertise, they have to reinvent the wheel.”

It’s not just vacancies among career staffers, either. Trump has not made it a priority throughout his presidency to fill scores of top political jobs: 39 key positions across 15 departments were never filled in his first term, and 131 key positions remain vacant, Dunn Tenpas found in a recent report. Nearly one in three Senate-confirmed positions at the Justice Department has been continuously vacant since Trump took office, and more than half were unfilled as of mid-August this year, the report said.

The trend could be on track to grow worse over the next few months. At least 27 political appointees have left the Department of Health and Human Services since the start of the coronavirus crisis in January, POLITICO reported last month. And senior leaders there have been bracing for dozens more departures in the event of a Trump loss, leaving only a shell staff to lead the agency through the winter as Covid-19 cases reach new highs across the country.

The American Federation of Government Employees, the country’s largest federal workers union, voted to endorse Biden this summer based on his answers to their questionnaire about how he would support and protect the civil service.

“He explicitly indicated that on his first day in office he would reverse the Trump administration’s executive orders that attacked our collective bargaining rights,” said Brian DeWyngaert, AFGE’s chief of staff. “There’s a commitment we’ve already seen from them on these issues.”

The union said Biden also pledged in their candidate questionnaire to support regular pay increases so federal salaries remain competitive and reverse the Trump administration’s cost-shifting that required workers to pay more for health and retirement benefits.

But Biden and his top aides have rarely talked publicly about the need to revamp the civil service itself, a task that will involve everything from recruiting and refilling the ranks at federal agencies to updating technology and restoring the public’s trust in government, which has been at or near its all-time low for roughly a decade.

Failing to take those steps quickly could hinder the team’s entire first-term agenda, experts say.

Light, of NYU, found in a report this fall that the number of “government breakdowns” — which he defines as events that reveal federal administrative failures — have risen steadily for decades, increasing from 1.6 annually under former President Ronald Reagan to 4.3 under Trump. That growth is evidence, he found, “that the federal government cannot be trusted to meet minimal expectations for reliability and care.”

Compounding the problem is a new executive order the Trump administration rolled out in late October that targets career staffers involved in developing policy, making it easier to hire and fire them. Critics warn it both politicizes the civil service and presents a double-barreled assault: stripping current employees of protections while paving the way for Trump loyalists to move into non-political roles where they could stay throughout the Biden administration, working to hamper any agenda from inside.

So far, it has prompted a lawsuit from the National Treasury Employees Union and led the chairman of Trump’s Federal Salary Council to resign “as a matter of conscience.” And it, too, could create headaches for the Biden administration if it allows political appointees and acting officials to move into more protected jobs.

“The executive order is very, very concerning,” said Yevgeny Shrago, a visiting fellow at the Revolving Door Project. “It is a poison pill for the Biden administration.”

Exacerbating the challenge for Biden is the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which entered a deadly third wave in the leadup to Election Day, forcing many schools to shift to or stay remote and putting frontline workers at high risk.

DeWyngaert said one of the most urgent things an incoming Biden administration needs to do is give workers clear guidance on who can continue to work from home during the pandemic and how those who have to go into the office can stay safe from Covid-19.

“The current administration has been ignoring pleas of employees for PPE and safety protocols,” he said. “In a number of agencies, employees have been told that they’ll be ordered back to work soon, right as Covid is escalating. Some live with children and other loved ones who have underlying conditions. Their children might be attending school through Zoom. They may have lost childcare because of Covid. We fear that we’re going to be in for a rough winter worse than we saw in the spring.”

The bulk of the federal government’s issues, however, are less a direct result of the past four years of the Trump administration and more so the result of four decades of neglect, experts say, comparing it to a building that has not had a major repair in 40 years.

“Both parties have allowed this to fester for a really long time,” Briefel said. “The problems we’re having hiring new talent, particularly recent graduates, is a front-burner national security crisis.”

But now that Trump has further dismantled an already weak foundation, the onus is on Biden to revitalize and restore a bureaucracy in need of significant reforms.

“You can have all the dreams you want,” said Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership with Public Service, “but if you don’t have the capability of making them real — which is really what, fundamentally, these government operations issues are about — then you just haven’t done yourself a whole lot of good.”