Eric Katz | March 22, 2018 | 0 Comments

Omnibus Puts Kibosh on White House Efforts to Unilaterally Reorganize Agencies, Shed Workers

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., speaks to reporters March 22 about the massive government spending bill moving through Congress. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., speaks to reporters March 22 about the massive government spending bill moving through Congress. J.Scott Applewhite/AP

Congress has reasserted its authority to weigh in on any reorganizations the Trump administration may attempt to implement by including several provisions in a governmentwide spending bill to ensure agencies consult with lawmakers before they consolidate offices or shed workers.

Lawmakers have occasionally raised concerns about the lack of transparency in President Trump’s mandate that every agency reorganize itself and develop plans to reduce their workforces. But in an omnibus spending bill both chambers approved this week they codified their role in overseeing that process. Some of those provisions would prohibit specific proposals or workforce cuts from taking place, while others simply demand congressional review and input.

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At the Environmental Protection Agency, for example, lawmakers said in an explanatory statement they were rejecting Trump’s proposed cuts and not providing any funding for “workforce reshaping.” The measure would allow for just $1 million for reprogramming, which would include “proposed reorganizations, workforce restructure, reshaping, transfer of functions, or downsizing, especially those of significant national or regional importance, and include closures, consolidations, and relocations of offices, facilities, and laboratories.” Congress said it does not expect EPA to “consolidate or close any regional offices in fiscal year 2018.”

The “redesign” at the State Department, initiated by soon-to-depart Secretary Rex Tillerson, has drawn significant attention and prompted concern from much of its workforce. The spending bill would require the department’s inspector general to review the redesign at State and the Agency for International Development to ensure proper processes were used and the input of employees was included. State would also be required to report to Congress on any actions taken last year in response to Trump’s call for reorganization and subsequent guidance from the Office of Management and Budget. While State has called for massive cuts to its workforce, Congress said it expected State to maintain the foreign service and civil service staff levels on board as of Dec. 31, 2017.

The measure would directly block the Education Department from decentralizing its budget office, which reportedly sparked dissension both within the agency and at the White House.

“There remains concern that adequate information about and justification for its reorganization have not been transparently shared with Congress and stakeholders to be able to evaluate the changes being proposed, including the potential benefits or existing challenges they are meant to address,” lawmakers said.

While the Trump administration has instructed agencies to assume the drastic cuts proposed in the president’s budget would be implemented, Congress told agencies to hit the brakes. Lawmakers warned the Food and Drug Administration, Commodity Futures Trading Commission and the rest of the Agriculture Department to “be mindful” of the legislative branch’s role in setting funding levels for fiscal 2019.

“Therefore, the agencies should not presuppose program funding outcomes and prematurely initiate action to redirect staffing prior to knowing final outcomes on fiscal year 2019 program funding,” lawmakers said.

A provision of the spending measure funding the departments of Commerce and Justice would specifically prohibit any preprogramming of funds to “reassign an employee or reorganize offices.” If those agencies were to issue a reduction in force, they must first provide 30-days notice to Congress. The Homeland Security Department would need to provide lawmakers with 60-days notice if they follow through on reorganizing its headquarters.

OMB originally said agencies would make their reorganization and workforce reduction plans public in Trump’s fiscal 2019 budget. That document provided some details on agency plans when it was released in February, but promised more details in the president’s management agenda. The management agenda, released this week, also promised more details on the overhauls in the coming months.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has said the Trump administration’s proposals would amount to a “degradation of the federal workforce” that was occuring “in darkness.” He has called for hearings on the plans and attempted, unsuccessfully, to solicit them from OMB.

"The fact that the Republican controlled Congress had to pass legislation to require the Trump administration to show us their secret reorganization plans is indicative of just how extensive the Administration’s obstruction of congressional oversight has become," Cummings said on Thursday. "While this is a start, a number of agencies are still getting away with keeping their reorganization plans hidden from Congress because Chairman Gowdy has refused to subpoena those plans.”

The House on Thursday approved the omnibus bill and the Senate followed suit early Friday, sending the measure to Trump's desk.

This story has been updated to reflect the Senate vote on the omnibus bill

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