Trump's shutdown trap?
Has President Trump suckered Democrats and the Deep State into a trap that will enable a radical downsizing of the federal bureaucracy? In only five more days of the already "longest government shutdown in history" (25 days and counting, as of today), a heretofore obscure threshold will be reached, enabling permanent layoffs of bureaucrats furloughed 30 days or more.
Don't believe me that federal bureaucrats can be laid off? Well, in bureaucratese, a layoff is called a RIF – a Reduction in Force – and of course, it comes with a slew of civil service protections. But, if the guidelines are followed, bureaucrats can be laid off – as in no more job. It is all explained by Michael Roberts here (updated after the beginning of the partial shutdown):
A reduction in force is a thoughtful and systematic elimination of positions. For all practical purposes, a government RIF is the same thing as a layoff. ...
Organizations must stick to predetermined criteria when sorting out what happens to each employee. They must communicate with employees how and why decisions are made. ...
In deciding who stays and who goes, federal agencies must take four factors into account:
2. Veteran status
3. Total federal civilian and military service
Agencies cannot use RIF procedures to fire bad employees.
A lot of procedures must be followed, and merit ("performance") is the last consideration, but based on the criteria above, employees already furloughed can be laid off ("RIFed") once they have been furloughed for 30 days or 22 work days:
When agencies furlough employees for more than 30 calendar days or 22 discontinuous work days, they must use RIF procedures.
An employee can be terminated or moved into an available position[.]
This seems to be what was referenced in this remarkable essay written by an "unidentified senior Trump official" published in the Daily Caller, which vouches for the authenticity of the author and explains that it is protecting him from adverse career consequences should the name become known. I strongly recommend reading the whole thing.
The purported senior official makes the case that devotion to "process" eats up most of the time of federal bureaucrats and is also used by enemies of President Trump's initiatives to stymie the legitimate orders issued by his senior officials:
On an average day, roughly 15 percent of the employees around me are exceptional patriots serving their country. I wish I could give competitive salaries to them and no one else. But 80 percent feel no pressure to produce results. If they don't feel like doing what they are told, they don't.
Why would they? We can't fire them. They avoid attention, plan their weekend, schedule vacation, their second job, their next position – some do this in the same position for more than a decade.
They do nothing that warrants punishment and nothing of external value. That is their workday: errands for the sake of errands – administering, refining, following and collaborating on process. "Process is your friend" is what delusional civil servants tell themselves. Even senior officials must gain approval from every rank across their department, other agencies and work units for basic administrative chores.
Then the senior official notes what I have just called the "trap":
Most of my career colleagues actively work against the president's agenda. This means I typically spend about 15 percent of my time on the president's agenda and 85 percent of my time trying to stop sabotage, and we have no power to get rid of them. Until the shutdown.
Those officials who waste time and stymie the president's initiatives now are not present because they are not categorized as "essential."
Due to the lack of funding, many federal agencies are now operating more effectively from the top down on a fraction of their workforce, with only select essential personnel serving national security tasks. ...
President Trump can end this abuse. Senior officials can reprioritize during an extended shutdown, focus on valuable results and weed out the saboteurs. We do not want most employees to return, because we are working better without them.
Keep in mind that saboteurs cannot be individually identified and RIFed, but they can be included in the layoffs if they meet the criteria above in terms of seniority and service, and they must be given 60 days' notice. But once they are gone, they are no longer free to obstruct using the "process" as their friend, because they are gone.
You can expect lawsuits on every conceivable point, and I suspect that the definition of "furlough" will be one matter of dispute.
If this was the plan all along, it would explain why President Trump goaded Chuck and Nancy in his televised meeting with them last year, boasting that he would claim credit for the shutdown. How could they resist a prolonged shutdown when he made it so easy to blame him?
President Trump has proven that he is a "disruptor" who changes the framework of thinking on major issues by refusing to accept the "givens" – the assumptions of how things always have been done and therefore always must be done.
So who is the "senior official"? I don't know, but I think Stephen Miller is the sort of bold thinker who might volunteer to telegraph the strategy just five days before the deadline. Give Chuck and Nancy something to think about and probably reject as unthinkable. Then they can't complain that they weren't warned once the trap is sprung.
Such a mass RIF would be the Trump version of Ronald Reagan firing the air traffic controllers when they went on an illegal strike in 1981. That was completely unexpected by his enemies, vehemently criticized, and successful.
Among other benefits, it taught the leaders of the USSR that Ronald Reagan was a man whose threats cannot be dismissed as mere rhetoric. If you think that Xi Jinping, Kim Jong-un, Angela Merkel, and any other foreign leaders would not draw the same conclusion from a massive RIF, then you are kidding yourself.
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore (cropped).
My theory may be completely wrong, but I pray that it is not.
Hat tip: Clarice Feldman
Monica Showalter adds: Slate of all places has a useful chart on which agencies have the most RIFs on the line. Surprise, surprise: It's where the bureaucrats most in need of layoffs happen to roost. Update: This is from 2013, but the proportions of furloughed "non-essential" staff likely are similar.