WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump will lift his 2-month-old hiring freeze on federal employees Wednesday, but it still could be some time before open posts at the Pentagon and Department of Veterans Affairs get filled.
In a news conference with reporters Tuesday, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said he expects many government positions left open during the hiring freeze will never be filled, as officials look for ways to streamline federal operations and cut waste.
"What you are talking about doing is restructuring Washington, D.C., and that is how you drain the swamp," he said.
In January, in one of his first acts as president, Trump ordered a halt to all hiring of civilian employees across the executive branch, "regardless of the sources of their operational and programmatic funding."
The measure did not include military personnel, and included exemptions for a number of key Defense Department intelligence posts and VA medical jobs.
But both agencies did see thousands of positions frozen under the order. Mulvaney said while the change will allow some of those positions to now be filled, "it does not mean that the agencies will be free to hire willy-nilly."
Instead, federal agencies will have two months to examine their workforce and suggest ways to reduce staffing without compromising services. Mulvaney said in some cases, that could mean consolidating programs spread across multiple agencies under a single office or department.
For example, Mulvaney said officials will look at whether the National Nuclear Security Administration — which oversees parts of the country’s nuclear weapons arsenal — should continue to remain part of the Department of Energy instead of the Department of Defense.
He also said job training programs stretched across multiple agencies might be better run if they’re consolidated under a single office. Currently, troops and veterans looking for post-military careers can receive training through the military, the VA, the departments of Labor and Agriculture, and other offices, depending on their interests.
White House officials are expected to finalize those reorganization plans by September.
"The president has asked all of us in the executive branch to start from scratch," Mulvaney said, saying that many agencies need to be "rebuilt" to improve services.
Pentagon and VA officials have not released any details of what their plans might entail. Senior leaders at both departments have said the hiring freeze did not damage their ability to conduct daily priorities, but have conceded minor problems with staffing and operations as positions were stalled.
Trump promised to bring a business-focused mentality to federal government during his campaign for president and said that potentially billions of taxpayer dollars could be saved with more efficient operations of federal offices.
However, outside analysts have cast doubt on whether those savings can outpace Trump’s spending plans, which include hefty boosts to the military and VA services.
Mulvaney indicated that both the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs — both slated for sizable funding increases in preliminary budget plans — could see increased staffing under the reorganization plans. But no further details were released on numbers or timelines for those changes.
The Associated Press reported that despite the hiring freeze, the federal government added about 2,000 workers in February.
Leo Shane III covers Congress, veterans affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at email@example.com.