The Incredible Shrinking Trump Administration

Across nearly every federal department and agency, staffing levels fell during the first year of the Trump administration as empty positions went unfilled, budgets were cut, and de facto hiring freezes were implemented.

All told, the government shed about 16,000 jobs between January and September, according to an analysis by The Washington Post, citing data from the Office of Personnel Management. That stands in stark contrast to the first nine months of the Obama administration, when the federal workforce grew by 68,000. It's the first time the federal workforce has declined in the first year of a new administration since it fell by about 70,000 under Bill Clinton in 1993.

But it's still a leviathan. The Post story overstates the extent of the cuts by claiming—in the very first paragraph—that the reductions "could eventually bring the workforce down to levels not seen in decades."

That's technically true, but it will take a long time for that "eventually" to kick in. The federal workforce included 1.94 million employees at the end of September, according to the Post. That's well above the approximately 1.8 million employed by the federal government before the Obama administration started staffing up. Getting back to pre-Obama levels of federal workers would require cutting another 16,000 jobs every year for the next nine years.

Still, it's a step in the right direction—even if something of an accidental one.

There's no doubt that Trump came into office with a promise to reshape the federal government—he famously proposed to "drain the swamp" during his presidential campaign—but he was never all that explicit about whether he intended to reduce the federal workforce. In fact, as Jeffrey Tucker of the American Institute for Economic Research points out, Trump made promises that would require the government to grow to new heights: "stopping immigration, keeping out foreign products, cracking down on drugs, building a wall, expanding the military, and so on."

Does Trump deserve credit for cutting the federal workforce during his first year in office? Yes and no.

The budget proposed by the Trump White House is clearly having an effect on how federal agencies plan for the future. Trump proposed cutting as much as 30 percent from some departmental budgets (although he proposed increases elsewhere) and the White House has warned that more cuts will be proposed in the fiscal year 2019 budget set to be unveiled in a few months. So far, few of those proposals have actually become policy, but they could become policy, and agencies have responded by cutting staff or at least avoiding new hires. A temporary hiring freeze that expired in March has become a de facto freeze at many departments, according to the Post.

Trump also gets credit for putting the right people in charge at various departments. Scott Pruit's Environmental Protection Agency, for example, cut 500 jobs during 2017 and rolled back regulations that require lots of officials to maintain.

But it's likely that the overall decline in the federal workforce would be slighter if Trump really had his way. There are still hundreds of unfilled positions across various government agencies, including some 250 high-level posts the administration has been unable to fill. A spokesman for the Justice Department told the Post that the reduction of more than 2,300 jobs within the federal Bureau of Prisons is largely the result of hiring delays rather than an intentional effort to shrink the government.

And if Trump hasn't drained the swamp, he's at least inspired a lot of it to drain itself. As the Post notes, more than 71,000 career government employees have left their jobs since Trump was inaugurated—a higher number than in the first year of previous administrations, suggesting that frustration with the slow transition process or an unwillingness to serve under such a polarizing president is part of the explanation.

"Morale has never been lower," Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents 150,000 federal workers at more than 30 agencies, told the Post. "Government is making itself a lot less attractive as an employer."

Good! If government is a less attractive destination for America's best and brightest, that means those people will put their considerable skills to work in other areas of the economy—areas where they will produce value, rather than consuming tax dollars earned by others.

In the end, it doesn't matter too much whether a reduction in the size of the federal workforce is happening because of Trump's deliberate efforts or as a consequence of his ineptitude. It's probably a little of both. Regardless, it's a bit of good news at the start of the year and a trend that will hopefully continue into 2018.