Freeze! Trump puts federal actions on hold
—Nominates budget hawk Mulvaney as influential OMB Director
As things get cooking at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, a few things are freezing: federal regulations and hires. On his first day in office, President Donald Trump issued two memoranda calling for the freezes.
Neither action is unprecedented in presidential history. Hiring freezes were implemented by Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. President Obama put a hold on pending regulations from his predecessor, as did presidents G.W. Bush, Reagan, and Carter before him.
But the memos put the regulatory agencies—and the country—on notice: Out-of-control, all-powerful federal agencies are a thing of the past.
Regulatory and hiring freeze
The regulatory freeze memo states, “In order to ensure that the president’s appointees or designees have the opportunity to review any new or pending regulations,” agencies are to send no new regulations to the Office of the Federal Register for publishing.
Regulations that have not yet been published are to be immediately withdrawn for review and approval. Those that have been published but have not yet taken effect are to get a minimum 60-day postponement “for the purpose of reviewing questions of fact, law and policy they raise.”
An important asterisk: Trump’s memo goes so far as to define the term “regulation” as including “guidance documents.” These are quasi-regulations that do not require formal rulemaking procedures and don’t technically carry the force of law. Violating a guidance may not violate law, but it could gain the attention of a regulatory agency. Such instances can have a chilling effect on industry.
Excluded from the freeze are regulations regarding “emergency situations or other urgent circumstances relating to health, safety, financial or national security matters…” Also, any regulations subject to statutory or judicial deadlines are to be excluded.
“[I]dentify such exclusions to the [Office of Management and Budget (OMB)] Director as soon as possible,” directs the memo. The new OMB Director—Trump has nominated Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-SC5), though the Senate confirmation vote had not occurred as of print—will review any such notifications and determine whether such exclusion is appropriate under the circumstances.
Agency responses have varied. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has reportedly withdrawn 32 regulatory actions. The U.S. Forest Service has also stated it is withdrawing all documents submitted to the Federal Register for publication.
However, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has indicated that it will go forward with a status review of the lesser prairie chicken, a move the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association claims violates the president’s directive.
As for the hiring freeze memo, the president cited his constitutional authority to order a freeze on the hiring of federal civilian employees. As of noon on Jan. 22, no positions may be filled or created “except in limited circumstances.”
The memo makes an exception for military personnel, or when an agency head determines such positions are “necessary to meet national security or public safety responsibilities.” The administration last Wednesday announced that “frontline caregivers” at the Department of Veterans Affairs will also be exempt.
Within 90 days, the OMB Director, in consultation with the Director of the Office of Personnel Management, is directed to recommend a “long-term plan to reduce the size of the federal government’s workforce through attrition.” The hiring freeze will expire upon implementation of that plan.
Reducing the federal workforce could produce large benefits for taxpayers. In 2014, the Cato Institute estimated the average federal worker costs taxpayers $119,934. According to the Government Printing Office, the federal government in 2016 employed 2.1 million civilian workers, not including postal workers, costing taxpayers $267 billion. For 2017, OMB estimates that taxpayers will spend $337 billion on civilian federal employees.
Delivering on promises
Both freeze memos are in keeping with Trump’s “Contract with the American Voter”—his plan for his first 100 days in office. That contract included a pledge to freeze federal hiring, and a promise that “for every new federal regulation, two existing regulations must be eliminated.”
Since Trump took office, the White House official website has reflected his aim to reduce federal regulations and their associated costs—which he’s claimed cost the U.S. over $2 trillion in 2015 alone.
During last Tuesday’s confirmation hearing of Mulvaney, Trump’s goals were echoed.
“My very distinct impression, from working with the transition team, is that regulatory reform is going to be an absolute priority for this president,” said Mulvaney before the Senate Budget Committee. “In fact, I think you saw him mention yesterday that he wants to cut 75 percent of the regulations. He is absolutely dead serious about this.”
When asked about the federal hiring freeze, Mulvaney said the federal government needs to do a better job of rewarding employee performance—both the exemplary and the notso-good.
“And all I can say to you is that I look forward to figuring out a way to solve both ends of that problem,” he said.
If confirmed as the OMB Director, Mulvaney will have a lot of responsibility in his lap. The OMB is the largest office within the Executive Office of the President of the United States. It produces the president’s budget and reports to the president on whether agency programs, policies and procedures comply with the president’s policies.
Since Mulvaney was elected to Congress in 2010, he has been known as a budget hawk, pushing for a balanced national budget and returning hundreds of thousands of dollars from his office budget to the U.S. Treasury.
In his testimony before the Senate, Mulvaney focused on two priorities: how to curb government spending and debt—especially by reforming entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare—and how to rein in overregulation.
“For the first time in America’s history, the next generation could be less prosperous than the generation that preceded it,” Mulvaney testified. “To me, and to the people in this room, that is simply unacceptable. We can turn this economy, and this country around…but it will take tough decisions today in order to avoid impossible ones tomorrow.” — Theodora Johnson, WLJ Correspondent