When President Donald Trump announced a hiring freeze on federal jobs on Monday—one of his first actions as president—conservatives cheered, and Democrats and federal workers reacted with horror. Legislators on Capitol Hill called it a “knee-jerk decision” and a “mindless way to manage”; J. David Cox Sr., the head of the American Federation of Government Employees, declared that “all Americans should be outraged.”
How big a deal is it? Experts on the federal government point out that Trump’s move, by itself, doesn’t actually do much. “There’s less there than meets the eye,” said Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University. For one thing, the document—officially a presidential memorandum, not an executive order—includes large holes. It exempts all military personnel, which makes up over a third of total government employment. It also exempts jobs deemed “necessary to meet national security or public safety responsibilities,” without specifying what they are. And broadly speaking the president just doesn’t have the power to make big changes in the federal work force. It’s protected by civil service laws; the order won’t curtail their benefits or make it easier for the government to fire workers. All those changes have to go through Congress.
Where the move matters is in its symbolic value: A signal to congressional Republicans that Trump is serious about reforming generations-old civil service laws, and tossing the ball firmly into their court.
If Trump actually goes to war with the federal workforce and cuts it down, he’ll be managing a trick that has largely eluded earlier presidents. Ronald Reagan, too, imposed a hiring freeze on his first day in office. Jimmy Carter imposed three different hiring freezes during his presidency. But overall, the size of the federal workforce has barely budged over the past few decades, stuck at about 2 million people since the late 1960s, according to the Office of Personnel Management. (And counter to the Republican rhetoric about bloat, it’s quite a bit smaller, relatively speaking: as the country has grown, the percentage of American workers employed by the federal government has fallen from 5 percent to 2 percent in the last 60 years.)