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Trump doesn’t need Congress to hamstring health and environmental agencies. It’s already happening.

Key positions in federal agencies remain vacant while talks of layoffs begin.

Photo of a scientist in a NIH lab performing cancer research
Hundreds of positions remain vacant at four key environmental and health agencies, stymieing important live saving research.
SAUL LOEB / Getty Images

President Trump has told us over and over that he intends to “drain the swamp.”

And his war with the federal government has been codified — in the sweeping cuts in his budget proposal and in the language of his advisers. (Recall when Steve Bannon famously called for the “deconstruction of the administrative state.”) He’s built an administration that is hostile to government regulation and has promised to roll back two government regulations for every new one introduced.

The budget requires, and isn’t likely to get, Congress’s approval. But the Trump administration has other ways to force the federal workforce to contract. And it’s already happening — with consequences for health and the environment.

As the Washington Post reported, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney has been urging agency heads to offer buyouts and early retirement packages, do layoffs, and eliminate jobs.

And four major health and science agencies — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Human Health and Services, National Institutes of Health, and the Environmental Protection Agency — are acquiescing. They have voluntarily chosen to uphold a hiring freeze put in place in January (and officially lifted in April) as they brace for staff cuts and reorganization, leaving hundreds of positions unfilled.

What this means is analysts who would assess the risk of a disease or pandemic aren’t being hired. And positions for people who’d offer technical expertise in the case of a toxic spill aren’t being listed. In some instances more administrative roles that are essential for public health are going unfilled, leaving piles of paperwork that delay research and hinders scientific progress.

“The EPA is heavy on people because it’s people who go out and do protection, people who are on the ground doing samples,” said Nicole Cantello, an EPA lawyer who works with the Chicago labor union. “You have to have people to investigate.”

Hiring freezes are common at the beginning of a new presidential administration, but Trump’s signals a shake-up of the traditional order

In January, the administration imposed a hiring freeze on all federal agencies. This wasn’t unusual, as President Obama also issued a hiring freeze in 2009. But Trump’s hiring freeze was both larger in scope and more forceful in tone than his predecessor’s. Less discretion was given to individual agencies on how to proceed with staffing needs, and even when the moratorium was lifted, Mulvaney said, “This does not mean that agencies will be free to hire willy nilly.”

The freeze was officially lifted in April, but many agencies have voluntarily chosen to uphold the ban in preparation for sweeping staffing cuts. And the OMB issued a directive in April that instructed all federal agencies to submit a plan to reduce their staff by June 30.

There have been no specific recommendations from the White House on how to cut the federal workforce — or even what percentage of positions should be cut. Mulvaney has only said that it will be up to individual agencies to determine where there are “duplicative” or “nonessential” programs or services where staffing levels can be cut.

Staffing cuts would hurt the EPA’s ability to enforce laws and respond to natural disasters

Arguably, the federal agency that’s taken the most severe beating under Trump is the EPA. President Trump has openly lambasted its mission and has proposed a 31 percent cut in the agency’s budget.

In April, an internal EPA memo shared with Vox provided a detailed road map of which programs the agency planned to eliminate in addition to a call for a 25 percent reduction in staff, up from the 20 percent reduction proposed in Trump’s March 16 “skinny” budget.

But now a second internal memo leaked in May revealed the agency is already busy preparing for staffing cuts. The EPA has set aside $12 million for buyouts and early retirement packages. The memo also allocated $2 million to further consolidate and reduce the agency’s physical operations. (It is still unclear just how much the EPA plans to shrink its workforce — or even which programs or regional offices are slated for staffing cuts.)

This isn’t the first time that the EPA has been compelled to offer early retirement packages and buyouts. In 2014 under the Obama administration, the EPA paid more than $11 million to encourage 436 employees to leave their jobs.

But Cantello, the EPA lawyer, is concerned this year’s staffing cuts will completely undermine the mission of the agency. She said staffing levels at the EPA were already low and feared these kinds of cuts in personnel would make enforcement and emergency response efforts at the EPA incredibly difficult.

What’s more, the EPA is often the first line of defense in the case of a toxic spill or environmental health hazard.

“Folks don't recognize this about the EPA, but we are there for the states when stuff hits the fan,” said Tom Burke, a former EPA science adviser under President Obama. “When you need a scientific assessment, whether it’s Camp Minden, LA, or after a catastrophic wildfire, the Office of Research and Development is there to understand impacts and protect public health.”

But staffing cuts that move to eliminate nearly 4,000 positions from the agency would not only severely jeopardize the EPA’s ability to enforce laws and respond to natural disasters, but would even call into question its ability to perform routine administrative tasks like processing samples from a lab or filing permits for businesses seeking compliance with the Clean Air Act.

Nearly 700 unfilled positions at the CDC are jeopardizing lifesaving research

A senior CDC official told the Washington Post that there are nearly 700 vacant positions at the CDC because of the continued hiring freeze. Positions for budget analysts, public health policy analysts, and scientists remain unfilled, and at least 125 job categories have been blocked, according to a recently released CDC document that the Sierra Club obtained through a Freedom of Information Act.

The document revealed that many of the positions were high-level, requiring either a master’s degree or a PhD. Even more troubling, many of the positions fell within the agency’s Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response, which is responsible for managing outbreaks from some of the world’s deadliest bacteria and viruses.

What’s more, the agency still lacks a permanent director since Tom Frieden stepped down in January. The director position is one of the most critical public health positions in the government and is vital in fulfilling the agency’s mission to stop the outbreak of infectious diseases, but progress on the search for a replacement is stalled. Anne Schuchat was appointed in January as the agency’s acting director.

There is some hiring of key positions at NIH and HHS, but many administrative jobs remain unfilled

According to an internal NIH memo obtained by the Washington Post, clinical work and patient care are suffering as hiring at the agency has taken a back seat. The NIH is allowed to hire for “essential patient care staff vacancies,” but staff can’t be reassigned to pick up slack, and contractors cannot be used to perform full-time duties.

It’s a similar story at HHS, where positions for physicians and public health emergencies are largely exempt but key administrative roles go unfilled, which staff say is directly affecting patient care. A senior physician at the National Cancer Institute told the Post that many program assistant and laboratory assistant positions remain unfilled, which makes it harder to file reports and process laboratory specimens.

But leadership at HHS appears to be undeterred by these current vacancies and thinks it will help the agency reevaluate how it could operate more efficiently. In a speech on May 2 to HHS staff, Secretary Tom Price asked them to “reimagine” how the agency could work, reassuring, “We’re not looking to achieve an arbitrary financial goal or workforce numbers.”

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