President Donald Trump’s increasingly erratic and nonsensical tweet storms during this lingering government shutdown has distracted from an uncomfortable truth: the federal government was already in shambles and the partial shutdown has only further demoralized an already strained workforce.
After two years in office – and before the lights were flipped off in 25 percent of federal agencies – only 380 out of 707 senior federal posts that require Senate confirmation had been filled. While the administration blames Senate Democrats for blocking or slow walking many of those nominees, the criticism rings hollow when one considers that 126 senior positions – close to 20 percent of those that depend on a Senate vote – are still awaiting a nominee.
That’s not including the confirmed nominees the administration has simply shuffled around, like Mick Mulvaney who was confirmed to head the Office of Management and Budget, only to then be tapped to also head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and is now the president’s acting chief of staff - a post that does not require Senate confirmation.
The lack of senior leadership across the government could be why the 800,000 or so furloughed federal workers or those working with no pay were officially advised to offer their landlords to do odd jobs in lieu of their rent. Government workers say it’s either that or that current leaders are just callous to the pain they’re causing.
“It’s just so offensive that it has come to this,” Randy Erwin, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees union, told The Daily Beast through a deep sigh. “Federal workers work for the American people every day. They should be respected. They deserve that respect, and the president simply does not give it to them.”
The shutdown is directly hitting workers at nine federal agencies along with some smaller departments, many of which have no leadership to provide guidance for workers facing increasingly dire situations.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) still has vacancies at six out of its 13 top political positions, including its deputy secretary – the number two position that basically functions as a chief operating officer. The department is also without an assistant secretary for administration/chief human capital officer, according to a Washington Post tracker. And even the officials who are there have been MIA during the shutdown.
“Honestly, the weirdest thing about this shutdown compared to the last is the total lack of any political leadership [and] accountability,” a current HUD employee who asked not to be named told The Daily Beast. “During the 2013 shutdown there were politicals tripping over each other to be in charge of something, now there is no one.”
This is a far cry how the Obama administration officials handled the extended 2013 shutdown, when many of the 8,000 workers who work on everything from financing mortgages to awarding community development block grants that pay for sidewalks to local theatres, were required to show up to the office without pay.
“As people were coming in senior leadership was at every entrance greeting people, shaking hands, thanking people for coming in,” Melanie Roussell, who was the assistant secretary for public affairs at HUD in 2013, told The Daily Beast.
“Those people have families and lives that they need to take care of and while they’re not able to take care of their own lives because they’re furloughed, they’re also not able to take care of the vital services that the department provides,” Roussell, who now does communications for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, continued. “So yes, morale boosting was a huge component of our take of the previous shutdown.”
Over at the Department of Interior, Secretary Ryan Zinke was just forced out after a string of scandals. His resignation becomes official on January 2nd and he leaves a agency already in organizational tatters. Of the 17 top positions at the agency, six still have no nominees to fill the posts, including a director of the Bureau of Land Management. And two key nominees, the directors of the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, still await Senate confirmation.
“Mood in our agency has been demoralized,” a 45-year-old who has worked in the agency for two decades and who requested anonymity told The Daily Beast. “All of the [acting administrators] and endless round of people sent on temporary assignments has been sapping morale for the last couple of years. Decisions that need to be made have been deferred.”
Besides the government wide lack of senior management, the mood remains dark across the federal workforce. Federal employees had their pay frozen from 2010 to 2013, and Trump issued an executive order last week reinstating that freeze in 2019.
On top of that this administration has attempted sweeping reorganizations of some departments aimed at reducing the size of the federal workforce, which included new hiring freezes that meant an already strained workforce was tasked with even more duties.
The White House has proudly championed this overhaul as an attempt to make the government “more efficient, effective, and accountable,” though the inefficiency and sporadic attempt at a rollout of the purported overhaul has sent shivers through the spines of many lifelong government workers.
“A lot of damage has been done and a lot of work is going to have to be done to restore productivity and morale in the workforce itself,” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA), whose district includes many federal workers and contractors, told The Daily Beast.
Connolly says another wrinkle in the mix is that many of the cabinet level secretaries themselves don’t believe in the mission of the agencies they run, like Secretary Rick Perry who in his failed presidential bid advocated dismantling the Department of Energy that he now runs or even Ben Carson who has been accused of being absent for much of his tenure at HUD.
“It is little wonder that you have a very dark mood among federal workers,” Connolly continued. “We’ve got a highly ethically challenged – maybe one of the most ethically challenged cabinets in modern history – and lots of vacant slots after two years, which tells the workforce we really don’t care much about what you do in your mission. And that’s a very difficult thing to ask civil servants to accept.”